Does the use of digital medicine preclude human connection?

In a recent New York Times article, “Redefining Medicine with Apps and iPads,” Katie Hafner describes a “generational divide” in medicine. On one side sits the younger generation, at ease navigating EMRs and diagnosing disease with the assistance if digital apps. On the other side of this presumed generational divide, she describes the older generation, worried “that the human connections that lie at the core of medical practice are at risk of being lost.” This juxtaposition begs the question; does the use of digital medicine preclude human connection?

As a recent medical school graduate who has enthusiastically embraced technology, I have no fears that my use of digital technologies handicaps me from sharing the human connection essential for a healing and therapeutic patient-physician relationship.

In medical school, I witnessed much fanfare surrounding the teaching and “importance” of the physical exam. Still I found myself somewhat suspicious of what I was being taught—would it really warrant a workup if a healthy patient displayed “diminished reflexes”? Would I really be able to elicit an abdominal fluid wave in an obese patient, and even if I did, wouldn’t the patient have more urgent symptoms and treatment dictated by more accurate diagnostic testing?

A few times I ventured to express my skepticism, and across the board, my instructors responded as if questioning any aspect of the traditional physical exam was an act of blasphemy. They all assured me it was “very important” and often had an obscure anecdote to illustrate this importance to me.

I tried so hard to believe them. Yet, once I hit the wards in third year, the clinicians’ actions spoke louder than words. Early on I took time to report the minor changes in the patients’ daily physical exams. With great care, I documented new murmurs and the onset of crackles. But quickly I realized that no one cared. If the patient did not have corresponding symptoms, these details were brushed off as a waste of time.

Still I tried to maintain my enthusiasm for the physical exam by doing mini presentations based on material from JAMA’s “Rational Clinical Examination” articles. During these presentations I sensed the attendings reminiscing and the residents appreciating the refreshers. Still, the information I presented seemed little more than a nostalgic intellectual exercise. When it came to patient care, I couldn’t help but notice how rarely we changed our treatment plans based on the clinical exam.

As I look forward to residency, I worry about the limited time I will have to spend with each patient. Knowing the time constraints, I do not want to waste time percussing my patient’s heart when an X-ray or echocardiogram is more efficient and accurate. Does this mean that I do not value human connection? Of course not. Fortunately, I do not need the excuse of an obsolete physical exam maneuver to touch my patient. In forgoing the unnecessary exam, I will have time to take the patient’s hand in my own and ask her what scares the most or how we can make him more comfortable.

Please be assured I am not suggesting the physical exam is obsolete. The physical exam was and always will be an indispensable tool to diagnose and treat patients. Indeed it is imperative we continue to teach and maintain these essential skills. Acknowledging the technological advances in medicine and teaching a strategically streamlined exam would allow educators more time to emphasize the human connection and teach students skills to better connect and relate to their patients.

In his article, A Touch of Sense, Dr. Abraham Verghese extols the importance of the physical exam as a means to convey the message, “I will always, always be there, I will see you through this, I will never abandon you, I will be with you through the end.” Call me crazy, but I hope to take the time saved by my digital technologies and gently place my hand on the patient’s shoulder, look them squarely in the eye, and share the same message in my own words. Technology will never replace this privilege of human connection.

Heather Logghe is a physician who blogs at Allies for Health.  She can be reached on Twitter @HeatherLoggheMD.

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  • Dike Drummond MD

    I sincerely hope that the highest and best use of digital medicine is to provide the kind of medical information that makes spending MORE time with your doctor possible — in those moments when you really need it.

    So test results, appointments, wait times, questions that don’t need an office visit — are all handled by my cell phone app … and when you REALLY need a doctor and the first hand human touch of their expertise … they are available to you.

    And I admit I am an old school “Marcus Welby” style family doc. I am also very aware that the first hand experience of helping someone through a significant illness is healing for the patient and the doctor … and for many of us is the sole reason we went into healthcare.

    Dike Drummond MD

  • W Joseph Ketcherside, MD

    When you get to your neurosurgery rotation please learn to do a neurological exam. Most patients with abnormal spinal MRI do NOT need surgery – and a good history and physical exam will tell you which ones do. I am a great advocate of technology but have enough years experience to understand its limitations. As you progress through school and make your share of mistakes based on listening to the machine instead of the patient, you’ll gain this wisdom too. Best of luck.

  • Michael van Straten

    Michael van Straten

    As an osteopath with 45 years of experience, I feel that no technology can replace the human hand when considering the structural, postural and muscular involvement in back pain. Of course the MRI has vastly improved diagnostic accuracy, but the physical neurology exam often reveals more about the severity of symptoms.

    The more you touch, the more you develop the palpatory sensitivity we all need in the practitioner/patient relationship, but it is the how and where of touching that that matters to the patient. You are so right about the hand on the shoulder, the gentle pat on the back or taking the patients hand in yours. It seems to me that the more techno we become, the more afraid of touching we get. I finally retired when required to inform my patients – even the elderly ladies – that osteopathy involved touching sexually sensitive areas and getting a form signed to that effect. The litigious patients had arrived in the UK and the lawyers were queuing up to make a quick buck.

    I now live in France where they have no reservations about touching, both in ordinary life and in medicine. Sadly, I have to visit three separate consultants on a monthly basis; all women and all “touchers” who not only greet me with a kiss on both cheeks, but say goodbye with an arm round my shoulders or a hug. Needless to say they are just as tactile with their exams and provide an overwhelming sense of care and professionalism.

    We all benefit from modern technology, but let us not throw out the (untouched) baby with the bath water!

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