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Studying animals can help greatly with the advancement of human medicine. (Richard Hutchings / Corbis)

How Looking to Animals Can Improve Human Medicine

In a new book, UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz reminds us that humans are animals too. Now, if only other doctors could think that way

You have started an annual Zoobiquity conference to facilitate relationships between doctors and veterinarians.

In January 2011, we had a conference where top veterinary academics from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and top human academics from the UCLA School of Medicine discussed the shared diseases of different species. We had a case of a brain tumor, something called a glioblastoma, in a high school principal, which was presented by a human neuro-oncologist. Then we had a case of a glioblastoma in a Rhodesian Ridgeback, a dog, presented by a veterinary oncologist. We showed the CAT scans and discussed treatment. We did the same thing for heart disease, separation anxiety and OCD.

We also needed to literally build relationships, so, we all got on buses and drove to the Los Angeles Zoo. Veterinary cardiologists and human cardiologists met each other. Veterinary oncologists and human oncologists met each other. We had many medical students and veterinary students who also met each other. Then we went and walked rounds at the Zoo. That was intended to be both functional and symbolic.

We are doing a similar conference in September. We are covering breast cancer in different species and infertility and assisted reproductive technologies. We have a very prominent veterinarian from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Pierre Comizzoli, coming out to present on advanced assisted reproductive technologies for endangered species, such as pandas. Then we are going to have a very prominent human fertility expert talk about the same techniques and challenges in a 40-year-old woman. We are doing bullying as well, looking with a very prominent human bullying expert at animal analogs of bullying behaviors. Then we are doing self-injury. The conference has been a physical, real-time, boots-on-the-ground effort to bring veterinarians and physicians closer to each other, particularly to allow physicians to recognize their clinical peers on the other side of the species divide.

How has this idea of zoobiquity changed the way you practice medicine?

Working with veterinarians has definitely made me a better physician. I think comparatively all of the time now. No matter what problem I encounter in a human patient, I immediately think about other animals with the same diseases. I think I have learned to be a better observer of my patients. Veterinarians don’t have language to use. Their patients can’t tell them what’s going on so they rely on physical diagnosis, inspection and observation, which are unfortunately becoming lost arts on the human side.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?

That’s an easy one for me. I have two questions. If you were to bring into the conversation of whatever you are studying a related field that does not traditionally intersect with your own, what field might that be? And, in what ways can infusing evolutionary biology into your question, area or research, expand your perspective?

From my last interviewee, Robert W. Merry, a political journalist and author of Where They Stand, about the ranking of presidents: Why is the country in such a deadlock? And how are we going to get out of the crisis that is a result of that deadlock?

This idea of ranking really resonates with me. It has been over 150 years since Darwin showed us that we humans don’t sit on top of a pyramid of species. We are sitting on one branch of the tree of life. I think one thing that will help is for us to step off our pyramids. In my book, I argue that physicians should step off of the professional pyramid and see other health professionals as peers. In general, I think that the idea that there needs to be a hierarchy can be destructive and can actually get in the way of the collaborative problem solving that we need.

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