Why technology should never takeover the patient encounter

Today, healthcare is criticized by the public as too high on technology and too low in touch.  Computers take patients histories, provide differential diagnoses, and even supply educational materials to patients. A new specialty, tele-medicine, offers healthcare services to rural areas that were previously underserved or couldn’t afford the latest diagnostic technology.

A humorous story about technology occurred when a patient’s secretary called to say that her boss was too busy to come in for an appointment. However, the secretary would fax the doctor a list of her boss’s symptoms and asked if the doctor could just call in a prescription. Of course, that’s the extreme of high tech and no touch.

Let me relate a very moving experience I had with a patient who was having difficulty with urination associated with chronic low back pain. I asked if his urinary problem was improving and inquired about his back pain.

“Dr. Baum,” he said, “I have had a terrible 3 days, with such severe pain and discomfort in my back that I almost took out my pistol and ended it all.”

I completed my exam and stepped out of the room to alert the patient’s primary care physician of my findings. I was told that my patient was currently seening a psychiatrist and that his primary care physician would make sure that the psychiatrist was aware of the patient’s depression and suicidal comments. Then I asked the patient to accompany me to the reception area where I gathered my staff and the patient next to a prominently posted sign that says, “if you are feeling less than a B+, please let us know and we will give you a hug.” I whispered to my staff members that the patient needed a hug. When we hugged him, the patient’s had tears in his eyes because I believe we showed real concern for him and his well-being, which included his mental health as well as his urinary stream.

Later that day, my staff members wrote to the patient and expressing their concerns and saying that they look forward to seeing him at his next appointment. When the patient returned to my office several weeks later, he said that he had found my staff’s hugs were far more effective and far more encouraging than his psychotherapy sessions and the three  antidepressant medications.

This patient encounter remains one of the highlights of my medical career. The patient clearly demonstrates the power of high touch and that as long as physicians are willing to use high touch, they will never be replaced by high tech.

Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MDor on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • http://twitter.com/davisliumd davisliumd

    If done correctly, technology can free up time by removing administrative tasks, paperwork, etc, and improve doctor patient relationships. 

    If done correctly, American medicine can be both high tech and high touch.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t want to be hugged by medical staff.

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