Life in the doctor's bag: Always changing

The doctor's bag gives a glimpse into the past through its contents. Over the decades, the bag has changed, adapting to developing knowledge. What new challenges await doctors?

A person is taking their blood pressure using a digital device on their left index finger and checking the reading on their smartphone.

Medicine is constantly evolving, with new advancements and tools introduced regularly. These changes serve as a testament to the progress made in the medical field and the mistakes made along the way. Some of these changes have resulted in improved treatment options, like the ECG machine, while others have highlighted the fallibility of medicine. In the archives, we can see examples of both embraced tools, such as the 'Improved Magneto-Electric Machine' for nervous diseases, and new technologies, like chloroform masks in childbirth, which had the potential to cause harm.

As new technologies develop, they raise further questions. With digital tools, patients gain access to more information about their health and can take a more active role in their treatment. Portable ultrasounds can be especially valuable in remote regions where doctors can quickly detect internal bleeding as GPs do not have to wait for ambulance crews to arrive. However, the increasing use of digital tools brings into question the diminishing importance of home visits in general practice.

Listen to the collection

The past century has seen many changes in how GPs have practiced. Dr Lloyd describes that digital technology has significantly impacted how GPs and patients interact. Dr Mackintosh asks what role will these technologies play in the future, and what will be the place of AI?

An ivory chainsaw is displayed in a red velvet case. The image is from the RCGP collections.
Ivory chainsaw RCGP collections

In focus: ivory chainsaw

This chainsaw is a surprisingly delicate-looking item housed in a velvet rexine case. The handles are creamy ivory, contrasting with its gruesome purpose of performing amputations and surgeries. The handles have an inscribed name, possibly belonging to Dr J. Spence, a renowned surgeon and president of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh. However, without more information, it's difficult to confirm.

Despite the unknown ownership of this tool, every aspect of this object serves as a testament to the wealth and status of its owner. During the Victorian period, there was a high demand for ivory, resulting in a surge in consumption amidst Western European imperialist activities. Unfortunately, these actions left a devastating impact on local communities and elephant populations to this day.

After Joseph Lister introduced his antiseptic system, doctors began to use different tools. Previously, a chainsaw like this one, made of ivory and velvet was a status symbol, but now it is understood that unsanitised tools were dangerous for patients. Although they are no longer suitable, these tools can still teach us about a time when society was changing.

To read more about ivory:

Braun's easy-to-use digital in-ear thermometer reads temperature sitting on the leaflet with instructions. There is a box of 20 disposable hygiene caps. Image from the RCGP collections.
Digital thermometer RCGP collections

Digital thermometer

In 1964, German physician Dr Theodore Benzinger invented a small radiometric device to record the temperature of the inner ear. By the 1990s, it became commonly used in the medical field, and by the 2000s, digital thermometers had become widespread. The old mercury thermometer is now a thing of the past.

Indeed, since the development of digital displays in the 1980s, there has been a surge of new digital tools in the doctor’s bag. These tools provide more precise readings, enabling patients to participate actively in their healthcare. For instance, during the pandemic, several GPs provided pulse oximeters to COVID-19 patients, allowing them to monitor their condition closely.

As new technology arrives, some questions arise. One concern is single-use plastic, such as the caps that come with medical thermometers. While these plastic caps play an essential role in maintaining hygiene and aid in treatment, they also contribute to pollution and climate change through their production. The NHS has launched the Greener NHS program to reduce its carbon footprint. This raises the question of what changes will occur in the future for the doctor's bag.

Read these case studies from Great Ormond Street and Charing Cross for more information on the NHS's new green practices.

Snapshots from the archives

The GP's role and their bag are always changing and adapting. These reflections from the archive show some of these changes are causes for celebration, and others for reflection. Yet, as one GP from Cardiff reflects, the core of the work always remains the same no matter what.

"Looking back, I increasingly realise what changes occurred in 1948. The implementation of the GP charter was a significant milestone, and now advancements in communication are poised to bring about another revolution. My son, who is a GP and lives next door, has access to incredible technology that never ceases to amaze me. I feel excited when I think about the changes I helped to bring about, but the story of Derbyshire House is a separate matter."

"When I qualified, the hospital wards were often occupied by illnesses that are now uncommon, such as rheumatic fever and its associated heart problems, osteomyelitis, tuberculosis, and acute nephritis. Although the use of antibiotics was still in its early stages, drugs like Prontosil and those developed by May and Baker gave us hope in our ability to fight infections. Before their development, isolation was the only option for treating scarlet fever. Aside from the smallpox vaccine, preventative medicine primarily focused on basic hygiene. Cases of puerperal fever were rampant during this time.

"The ideas of emotional dysfunction developed by Freud and his followers were gradually coming into general acceptance.

"Illnesses that used to be common are now rare or more straightforward to treat. Doctors are busier with surgeries, giving out tablets and shots instead of medicine bottles. Unfortunately, new diseases like AIDS have taken over. The Health Service hasn't done as many amazing things as we hoped because they focus too much on administration, business methods, and computer research.

"I had high hopes for the College of GPs, but those hopes have faded. However, the young doctors I meet nowadays are still just as smart and enthusiastic as they were when I was young. I'm feeling a bit down."

"We both found our work to be enjoyable and fulfilling. While General Practice is a great career choice for women, having a genuine interest in this field is important.

"To love people
To enjoy caring for them
To have a desire for this work
To be prepared to work hard and not to be upset if the work sometimes interferes with family life.
Visiting is important to treat the person."

The midwifery bag contains various instruments and a matte black perspex material. Science Museum Group Collection© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum.

The midwifery bag contains various instruments and a matte black perspex material.
Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum