Doctor Pigeon

“But doctor, what small eyes you have,” I say. “The better to diagnose you with,” they answer. 

Katherine Griffiths // Contributor  

Cynthia Tran Vo // Illustrator

If I was told that my radiology reports were being read by a Columba livia, the only thing that I would be impressed by is their understanding of the Latin name for a pigeon. Researchers from both the University of California Davis and the University of Iowa conducted a study that shows pigeons can be trained to identify benign from malignant breast histopathology. Beyond the insane ability that pigeons can be trained to be even remotely successful in identifying diagnoses such as breast cancer, the time and effort it would take to train pigeons to that level of competency horrifies me.  

I understand that any advancements in health care should be considered a win. However, the amount of effort it would take to train a legion of pigeons capable of producing effective data seems like it mitigates the need for medical training. Not to mention the fact that no ethics committee would agree to let a pigeon diagnosis be a standalone discipline within health care, therefore needing radiologist and pathologists to then confirm the pigeons’ findings. There would need to be pigeon handlers, cleaners, feeders, and animal rights legislation allowing pigeons to work in a hospital or clinic setting. Pigeons also do not have the best reputation for hygiene, so the patient safety aspect would be a hard one to work around. Can we safely house pigeons in the imaging departments of our hospital and not spread even more disease?  

While pigeons have the ability to differentiate stimuli, the article suggests that there is still human input required. The images need to be manipulated by human hands, to the trained pigeons, and then the interpretations then need to be recorded, again by the human. Depending on how many pigeons are on staff, that amplifies the human staff required to handle them. While, it seems like a great job creator, I am not sure that it would be the best use of taxpayer dollars.  

Despite the logistics and relevance of the study, it is fascinating to learn the birds’ abilities to distinguish between benign and malignant breast tumors. However, the lack of complete accuracy is troublesome. Humans, too, can make errors in health care. However, I would feel much more confident knowing that those errors came from someone who might ask for a second opinion later on. A physician can be spoken to, reasoned with and questioned. And while it seems like a great technique to aid in the diagnosis of cancer with the aid of the mighty pigeon, it concerns me that this was even tested. 

I have images of a seasoned radiologist handing out food remnants to a bird, who stares at images just as intently as the radiologist, but is dreaming about hitting up the garbage pile on its break. It certainly does not align with my idea of a medical breakthrough at all. Let’s leave the medical images to the doctors that have spent years training for this very job, without the need for breadcrumb bribes.

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