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Opinion: When doing nothing is the best medicine



"Don't just do something; stand there!" It's one of those phrases that attending physicians will spout off to their medical students while on rounds, trying to sound both sagacious and clever at the same time. It sometimes grates, but it does make a valid point, because so much of medicine is about "doing something." Sore throat? Prescribe an antibiotic. New headache? Get a CT scan. P.S.A. at the upper limit of normal? Get a biopsy. Blood pressure still high? Add on another medication. Doctors tend to want to "do something" whenever they note something amiss. And patients, by and large, want something done when they have a symptom. Few people like being told just to watch and wait. Of course, every "thing" a doctor does also has side effects—rampant bacterial resistance from antibiotic overuse; major increases in radiation exposure from unnecessary CT scans; incontinence or impotence from prostate cancer treatments that may do nothing to prolong life; toxic drug interactions from multiple medications, particularly in the elderly. The admonishment "Don't just do something; stand there!" reminds us that we should stop and think before we act, that there are many instances in which doing nothing is greatly preferable to doing something.
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