How technology intersects with medicine and its impact on patients

by Alison McKnight

We are surrounded by technology. No matter where you go, you will find technology rearing its face, whether ugly and ungodly or tempting and beautiful. These advances have brought both good and evil to many professions, especially healthcare.

Twenty years ago, you would not have found signs instructing people to turn off their cell phones in physician offices. Now these signs litter both the reception area and exam rooms. How does this technology add and detract from the care that the patient receives?

While most people do not use their cell phone during a visit with their physician, I am sure that there is still the text-aholic teen who can’t lay the phone down for enough time to get through the appointment with their physician. While using technology, such as the cell phone, may be rude if it is used at inappropriate times, it is not all evil.

Technology has brought immense benefit to both the physician and patient alike. When one has symptoms, they can simply type them into Google and pull up a plethora of pages on their condition. One can pull up discussions from people who have had the condition and have undergone certain treatments for it in addition the classic WebMD page that lists off what conditions you can have based on the symptom(s) you typed. Not only that, but prescribed drugs can be researched by both physicians and patients alike using technology. Physicians can avoid prescribing drugs that may interact with each other by using a computer program which all of the patient’s current medications that they are taking are input, and any interactions pop up on the screen. Best of all, it can be accessed 24/7 from just about anywhere on a device that can connect to the internet (except in the case of computer software, which needs to be installed). However, this free access to information can become a hindrance to care.

Diseases are complex, and the various functions of the parts of the human body can be even more complex. Sometimes there is just too much information to sift through, too many pages on the internet that contain information on the disease in question and the biological processes of the body parts involved. Some of this information may be good while others may be bad and misguided, and filtering through what is good and bad information can be taxing and time-consuming. On top of it, there is a lot of medical jargon that is used that may confuse the patient, or that the patient may skip over. Sometimes these words serve as useless clutter, but many other times, it plays a very important role in understanding the disease. By skipping over these words, patients may end up with only half of an understanding of the diagnosis, but they may think that they fully understand it. That is where the relationship with the physician comes in. While it is only common sense that if someone doesn’t understand a word they should look it up, the same cannot be said for difficult processes. Patients who desire an understanding of their diagnosis should research their condition on their own and come to the doctor to see how this relates to their case. Danger exists when the patient thinks they A) know it all or B) have every worst case scenario relate to their case. It may be up to the physician to help correct this wrong thinking, but it is up to the patient to acknowledge and change it (this can be especially hard for patients and care should be taken and the patient given a fair amount of support from the physicians and others who are close to them). A bit of humility on the patient’s end and some patience on the physician’s end may do wonder in correcting this.

Medicine especially has benefited from the advance in technology. Where surgery was once open, messy, and produced extensive visible scars, it now is very cosmetic, quick, and clean. It is amazing what technology has done for people, as technology has given people the ability to walk, when only decades before, the same person would have been relegated to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of his/her life. Technology has also reduced the number of fatalities during surgery, as there are ways to stop bleeding before it gets too out of hand and to stabilize people in a quick amount of time. However, despite all the positive things that technology brings, it can also bring not-so-great things to medicine as well.

It was said in my persuasion class in my sophomore year of college that we are met with clutter, and that we must sort through this clutter on a daily basis. Technology brings with it its own clutter that must be sorted through, and sorting through it can become incredibly exhausting and time-consuming for the physician. Despite the fact that technology may streamline healthcare and make prescribing medicine easier, it can be a headache at times. No matter how hard someone secures records, the database can still be hacked into. That being said, it is not just computer files that are being accessed, it is people’s private information that may be leaked and sold. One also must think about the problems that computers have. They freeze and crash, and this may not be effective when it comes to a physician having to prescribe something in a timely manner. Not only that, but if someone who is unauthorized to prescribe gets hold of the physician’s information for e-prescribing, medication may be dispensed without the physician knowing, a sort of “physician identity theft.” Without any other safeguards in place, “physician identity theft” would become another reality and burden that is heaped up on already overburdened physicians. Keeping this in mind, technology is probably best left to researching diseases, and the good pen and pad are still the best way to prescribing medication, as this takes the physician’s knowledge and signature to fill the prescription.

Medicine has been greatly impacted by technology, but technology has its place in medicine. While technology is good in researching conditions and drug interactions, it has no place in prescribing medication without other safeguards in place, as there still needs to be an actual physical authorization from the physician. While technology can improve communication with a physician (someone who is too busy to set an appointment with their doctor can easily e-mail or call them if they have any concerns) and the quality of care that a patient receives, it does not replace the physical presence of a patient in an office and the relationship that the physician and patient have, nor should it be allowed to replace this visit in the future.

Alison McKnight is a nursing student.

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  • Michele Bordelon

    Very well, stated Allison. It is a matter of coming from “balance” in using technology to provide good healthcare. In the end though, the one-on-one relationship (caring and curing) between patient and provider in which there is the human connection is key and should never be placed on the back burner. To the contrary, it should be on the “front burner”. It is far too easy to lose sight of the purpose of the “job” of provider these days due to technology and all the other clinical, legal demands in existence. We’re all still human beings working with other human beings and in my opinion that fact needs to remain in the center of the patient-provider equation. Technology is one way to make the job easier and more efficient but does not and nor will it ever take the place of caring, human interaction.

  • Penny

    I just wish they would get rid of medical health records. I think they will one day jeopardize the privacy of not millions (a figure which has already been surpassed, but of “billions!” I think this is the worst invention ever! It’s also full of mistakes that can severely harm a person for life.

    • Lil A

      I agree. Medical records are not private. I was at the doctor yesterday, and the receptionist was going through someone’s records right in front of me. I could see everything in it. Definitely not private.

      I think the real reason that medical records are kept are for legal reasons. If a doctor is sued, they need to have a detailed account of the care that they have given and the things that were advised or not advised. Doctors have so many patients that they cannot rely primarily on their memory. That is where the record comes into place. Another reason that it’s kept is for history purposes. If you are constantly coming in for ear infections (as is evidenced in the record), it might indicate a different underlying problem that must be addressed. Without this history, the underlying cause may never be identified and treated, as the doctor may not remember the last visit. Medical records are also used for billing purposes, and I think that this can be the most invasive purpose. If an insurance company deems that something wasn’t necessary, they won’t pay for the procedure, which I think is wrong. If a doctor has ordered a test or procedure, it’s often either to protect them from malpractice (that is why a patient should question procedures that they feel may not be necessary and refuse to undergo it if there is no real reason or explanation given-if the doctor can explain the reason for it, that is a strong indicator that it’s most likely a necessary procedure-and just because I said so is not a reason and should be questioned) or is in the patient’s best interest. Insurance companies really shouldn’t dictate what is necessary and what is not, as that is up to the patient and it can end up harming the patient in the end, as the diagnosis could never be complete and the underlying cause for the symptoms to be treated.

      Medical records are necessary evils, even though they are so intrusive. However, they are no more intrusive than the diary that you may write in. They do have safeguards in place that ensure that the wrong people do not read it, but just like a diary can be picked by talented enough person, medical records can also be broken into and read. It’s up to the office to make sure that they have updated safeguards in place that prevent this from happening.