The smell of freshly cut grass transports me back to my childhood, back to the garden where we had water fights and where I marched up and down dressed as a Roman Solider and where I buried my star wars figures.
Other smells transport me to other times. The smell of Brasso reminds me of my mum cleaning the copper, the smell of floor wax reminds me of my secondary school and the smell of Tommy Girl or Classique by Gaultier puts a teenage spring into my step. We all have a library of smells that transport us, smells that are personal to us. It’s in this way that smell, along with our other senses, is so important in medicine.
At medical school we’re trained to use our senses. We’re taught how to recognise the sound of croup, the shuffling gait of Parkinson’s, the smell of ketones and the yellowing sclera of cirrhosis.
These are all important clinical signs, but working as a GP means that we have to use our senses to pick up on social signs as well.
It’s all so messy and costly and you can’t even measure it or squeeze it into a ‘KPI’
On a home visit the upturned shopping trolley in the front garden can tell us more about what’s going on inside the house than any medical record ever could. Equally, if a wintry hallway smells of stale urine we know that our elderly patient is in trouble, and if we walk into a living-room full of cigarette smoke and see a wheezing child we know there’s a different kind of trouble ahead.
Our senses and our clinical intuition are important guides. But most importantly of all, medicine needs our sense of touch. The holding of hands, the firm committed hand shake or the hug from the wife whose husband is slowly dying can help spine the patient as well as the doctor.
But according to politicians we can just do away with all of that, who needs it anyway! It’s all so messy and costly and you can’t even measure it or squeeze it into a ‘KPI’. We can rid ourselves of this sticky human mess and replace it with a swipe screen and a fairy-tale algorithm. Anyone who benefits politically or financially from this idea should be treated with contempt, what they’re promoting insults us to our very core and robs us of our humanity. When I smell cut grass I’m transported to another time, when a computer smells grass it will probably count how many stems there are.
Normally I parody ideas in order to understand them. But there’ll be no jokes here. If politicians really think that we can be replaced with computers then the joke has already been told. And it’s the sickest joke going.
Dr Kevin Hinkley is GP in Australia who previously practised in Glasgow and Aberdeen