A few months ago, a young cardiologist told me that he rarely listens to hearts anymore. In a strange way, I was not surprised.
He went on to tell me that he gets all the information he needs from echocardiograms, EKGs, MRIs, and catherizations. In the ICU, he can even measure cardiac output within seconds. He told me that these devices tell him vastly more than listening to out-of-date sounds via a long rubber tube attached to his ear.
There was even an element of disdain. He said, “There is absolutely nothing that listening to hearts can tell me that I don’t already know from technology. I have no need to listen. So I don’t do it much anymore.”
I began to wonder. I called my longtime friend and colleague, also a cardiologist. I knew him to be one of the best heart listeners. I asked him if he still listens to hearts. He answered, “Of course I do. I could not practice medicine if I didn’t. But you know every week, several patients tell me when I listen to their hearts that I am the first doctor ever to do that. Can you imagine that?”
Playing the devil’s advocate, I challenged my friend to tell me what he learned from listening to hearts.
He answered, “How could anyone not want to hear those murmurs, sometimes ever so soft, like whispers? Murmurs from the heart, even very faint ones, are trying to tell us significant things. Some sounds are very localized, even hidden or obscured by layers of air. And then there is the rhythm and the beat and the cadence that you cannot hear on the paper strip of the EKG. Also, careful listening is the only way to appreciate the rubs of friction if there are any. The devices are important, but the heart has its own spoken and unspoken language if you know how to listen.
My cardiologist friend continued, “I don’t know how to say it. But something real important happens between me and the patient when I listen. Over a long period of time, I can get to know each heart and its peculiar and individual sounds and rhythms. I do believe if you put a blindfold on me I could tell one heart from another.”
Then I really began to wonder. How many of us no longer listen to hearts? How many hearts go unheard each day?
And the really big question: what becomes of the unheard heart?
Clifton Meador, MD is currently a professor at both Vanderbilt School of Medicine and Meharry Medical College and directs programs of the Vanderbilt-Meharry Alliance. He is perhaps best-known for “The Art and Science of Nondisease” and “The Last Well Person,” both published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and “A Lament for Invalids,” published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The articles are satiric treatments of the excesses of medical practice. He is the author of six books, including the best-selling medical book, A Little Book of Doctors’ Rules. This post first appeared on Maggie Mahar’s Health Beat Blog.