The biggest medical breakthroughs of the last 50 years

By Physician Sense
Published July 17, 2020

Key Takeaways

From a clinical standpoint, medicine today has evolved from the medicine of 50 years ago. While you might debate whether being a doctor in 1970 was better or worse than it is today (as we did in Part 1 of our series) it’s undeniable that the quality of medical care has never been better. New vaccines, pharmaceuticals, surgical breakthroughs, and medical imaging, among myriad other developments, have improved patient outcomes and quality of life.

To make some sense of this rapid advancement, we spoke to Dr. Scott Podolskyprofessor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. Podolsky also happens to be a bit of a history buff, leading the Center for the History of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School library. In addition to maintaining a primary care practice, Podolsky studies the history of therapeutics, clinical trials, and notions of efficacy over time — particularly with antimicrobials.

In short, if you’re looking for a crash course on a half-century of medical history, he’s the guy you call.

The pace of medical change

Perhaps as a byproduct of the information age, we tend to think that the advancements of the last 50 years have been the most impactful. But according to Podolsky, developments in the previous half-century were more radical. 

“Medicine in 2020 is much closer to medicine in 1970 than medicine in 1970 was to medicine in 1920,” he says.

From 1920-1970, American physicians saw the advent of private insurance, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Throw major pharmaceutical breakthroughs into the mix, such as antibiotics, antihypertensives, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and steroids, and you have radical transformation.

“The whole pharmaceutical revolution really happens after World War II,” Podolsky says. “The advance of the randomized control trial as the arbiter of therapeutic efficacy happens between 1920 and 1970. I write a lot about medical history in 1970, and I can say that it looks similarly to how it looks today. But there are still important differences.”

Those important differences, Podolsky says, include additional antimicrobials, the practice of medicine itself, diagnostics, treatment, the advent of professionalism and bioethics, and understanding the risk factors and burden of disease. We’ll get into each of these.

Warding off common killers

Speaking of risk factors and the burden of disease, physicians face a chicken-or-the-egg question: Should we thank advances in prevention, or improvements in diagnostics and treatment for declines among the common killers and overall increases in life expectancy? The answer, Podolsky says, is both. On the heart disease and cancer fronts, he credits the enormous reduction in smoking prevalence.

But, let’s not give short shrift to new drugs. According to Podolsky, the impact of pharmaceuticals such as antihypertensives and statins has been undeniable for stemming loss of life from the leading killers. 

In diabetes management, for example, physicians now have access to more drugs, including options for managing A1C, as well as interventions for managing complications, such as the use of lasers for diabetic retinopathy.

But it’s not just that preventive drugs have gotten better. Doctors and medical practice have also improved with respect to treating those who already have diseases like heart attacks and cancer.

“There are certainly major innovations in the last 50 years with respect to the development of secondary care for when someone has actually had a heart attack,” Podolsky says. “People usually come out and say, we’ll give half the credit to prevention and half the credit to treatment. It’s really hard to say, but certainly both sides have been critical.”

It also helps that physicians today are armed with numerous technological advances.


Seeing is believing. MRI, CT scan, and ultrasound have all been transformative, Podolsky says.

“Some would say they have degraded physicians’ physical exam skills,” Podolsky says. “There are certainly unintended side effects such as this, or the radiation involved with CT, or a bunch of incidental findings that we never wanted to know about. But nobody wants to go back to a time when we didn’t have these three modalities.”

Technological advances aren’t just confined to imaging. Surgical patients and surgeons themselves have benefited.

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