The Physical Exam and Society’s Regard for Physicians: A History

The Physical Exam and Society’s Regard for Physicians: A History

Editor's note: This post was picked up from

The physical exam – looking into the eyes and throat, taking the blood pressure, sounding the chest – is part of the process of medical diagnosis. It's one way a physician attempts to determine the cause of a patient's complaint.

In recent times, doctors have asked themselves whether the physical exam is becoming a lost art. It's been replaced by an array of laboratory tests and high tech machines that presumably provide greater accuracy than the eyes, ears, and touch of a mere human being. (Smell, of course, also provides clues, and device makers are inventing medical gadgets that detect scents. Doctors no longer taste urine for sugar, as they did from antiquity into the 19th century, nor do they taste perspiration to see if it’s sweet, salty, or acrid.)

The reasons for the current decline of the physical exam are many. Hospital stays used to be much longer, so students had more time to learn from patients. The modern resident's work week is officially limited, so there's less time to spend at the bedside. Office visits are now much shorter, and a hands-on exam uses precious time.

The physical exam could completely fade away. It could become a staple only of certain specialties. Or – if it’s viewed as an important component of the doctor-patient relationship – it could experience a renaissance. Its future remains to be seen.

What's not widely known, however, is that this is not the first time the physical exam has gone into decline. We know from surviving medical treatises that the exam was an integral part of a physician's practice in ancient Greece and Rome. This continued to be true until the late Middle Ages (1300-1500). The hands-on exam then disappeared for hundreds of years, reemerging gradually in the late 18th century.

There were a number of reasons for this decline, including changes in medical education, a desire on the part of educated physicians to occupy an elite position in society, and a lowering of the social standing of surgeons. A brief look at this previous disappearance illustrates how the practice of medicine is very much a product of the social climate in which it exists.

Hippocrates, Galen, and the humoral theory of disease
We know from the Hippocratic Corpus (fifth to third centuries BC) that physicians were advised to dismiss supernatural causes of disease and concentrate on empirical evidence. "It is the business of the physician to know in the first place, things … which are to be perceived by the sight, touch, hearing, the nose, and the tongue, and the understanding." We know, for example, that Hippocratic physicians palpated the abdomen and thorax. Understanding meant knowing the individual patient as a whole person. To diagnose, one needed to learn the patient’s habits, way of life, work, diet, etc.

The Hippocratic school held that the body was filled with four fluids – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – and that these fluids could become unbalanced. Blood-letting, for example, was a way to rebalance an excess of blood. This theory of the composition and workings of the human body was called humoralism.

Galen, a prominent physician who practiced in Rome in the second century AD, continued the Hippocratic tradition of humoralism, adding a greater emphasis on anatomy, physiology, pathology, and logic. He performed dissections — and vivisections – of animals (autopsies were illegal). When Galen palpated the abdomen, he knew the location of the liver, spleen, and bladder. He examined stool samples for color, consistency, and composition. Like his Hippocratic predecessors, he reportedly spent many hours in conversation with a patient as a means of reaching a diagnosis.

We know about Galen's practices because he left a large corpus of texts that was studied by medical students well into the 19th century. It's Galen’s theory of pathology – the study and diagnosis of disease – that dominated medicine for almost 2000 years.

Both Hippocrates and Galen were physician-philosophers – theoreticians – but they were also craftsmen. They worked not only with their minds, but with their hands, both to diagnosis illness and to perform surgery. Surgery included the treatment and bandaging of wounds, and, in the case of Galen, procedures performed on the brain (to relieve pressure) and eyes (cataracts). There was, of course, no internal surgery, although there were occasional exceptions, such as removing a bladder stone.

Med school reform and the disappearance of the physical exam
Galen's teachings were lost when the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476. They were preserved in Arabic, however, in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Beginning in the 11th century, Galen's works were translated back into Latin and, by the late Middle Ages, became the basis of western medical education.

A profound change happened at this time – a change that explains the loss of the hands-on physical exam. Medical practitioners separated into physicians and surgeons. Physicians were literate, read (and spoke) Latin, and acquired their medical training in universities. Surgery became a manual craft, learned by apprenticeship. Where previously the theories of the physician and the practical skills of the surgeon had been combined in one practitioner, medicine and surgery were now separate. Physicians were highly regarded by society for their book learning, and surgeons occupied a much lower social standing.

This is when physicians – with a few geographic exceptions – stopped practicing the hands-on physical exam. Scholarship was valued over sensory experience. Reason took precedence over observation. The educated physician valued mental activity and distained manual labor.

In making a diagnosis, the physician gave priority to the patient's account of his or her symptoms, even if it contradicted what the physician observed with his own eyes. (There were no women physicians, of course.) Patients could be diagnosed through the mail, just as Abraham Verghese writes today about the iPatient who can be diagnosed from electronic medical records with only a cursory visit to the bedside.

The relative social standing of physicians and surgeons
Surgeons became the primary care physicians of their day, attending to patients who could not afford the more expensive physicians. Since this class of patients couldn't pay very well, surgeons almost always practiced another profession. Commonly they were barbers, but also innkeepers, and later apothecaries (today's pharmacists).

Educated physicians sought patients among the well-to-do upper classes. Although physicians were more respected than surgeons, they were not necessarily of the same social status as their patients. They aspired to be dignified gentlemen, however, which meant they would not demean themselves by engaging in manual labor. When the stethoscope was first introduced, it was opposed by physicians who viewed its use as a manual procedure. When thoracic percussion was introduced, the response was indifference. Physicians did not handle the bodies of their patients directly.

What physicians did do was observe the general appearance of the patient (especially the face) and note behavior. They took the pulse, not for its speed, but for its quality (similar to traditional Chinese medicine). They examined urine, stool, sputum, and pus, since those specimens provided clues to the internal humors.

By the 17th century, there were thermometers that could measure a patient’s body temperature. Physicians could not find a relation, however, between temperature measurement and a patient’s subjective sense of warmth – a patient could have a fever, but feel chilled. So this new information was considered to be of no particular value.


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