The glue ear ‘epidemic’: a historical perspective

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Abstract

This paper explores the historical context of the dramatic rise in surgery for glue ear in the mid-20th century, and questions the published assertion that this represented a manufactured ‘epidemic’. In examining historical sources, the reader's theoretical viewpoint greatly influences their conclusions: the sustained rise in treatment for glue ear may be seen as the advance of science in a golden age or the resistance of insular professionals to reason in the light of new scientific study methods. Current views on the practice of medicine, consumerism, science and standardisation, rationing and the nature of ‘truth’ all affect the way that we see this period. Technological advances clearly allowed better diagnosis and more effective treatment, but these did not appear to drive an ‘epidemic’, rather they were developed to meet the pre-existing challenges of otological practice. The proposition that an ‘epidemic’ was created does not appear to have any solid grounding. Society's perception of what constitutes disease and what needs treatment may have evolved, but the prevalence of other important diseases changed dramatically over this time period, and a real change in the epidemiology of glue ear cannot be dismissed. In defining the case for and against surgical treatment, a solely positivist, quantitative worldview cannot give us a complete picture of benefit and risk to individuals, families and society at large.

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