The human side of medicine that no computer can ever touch

As I look back all those years ago to when I chose medicine as a career, I suspect that my motives were similar to most people who enter this wonderful profession. I wanted to become a doctor because I had a genuine and sincere desire to help people. I also liked the idea of a busy and energetic job, one where I was comfortably as far away as possible from a desk or computer screen.

Lots of my friends may have liked the idea of a desk job, but I knew that wasn’t for me. Almost fifteen years have passed, and I still remember my first week of medical school like it was yesterday. All the experiences since then — the late night studying, the never-ending exam schedule, those exhausting rotations — have all been worth it, and I really have no regrets in choosing this path.

The scientific knowledge that we are imparted throughout our formal medical education gives us the skills to truly make a difference in peoples’ illnesses and suffering. But those of us who work in health care also know that the practice of medicine is so much more than the basic science behind illness. It’s about people. Every doctor gets to experience memorable interactions throughout their careers, as we treat some truly inspirational patients (who often end up teaching us many valuable life lessons).

Hippocrates once said, “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”

In other words, without really understanding the patient as a person, we are never really going to help them as much as we can. As an attending physician practicing hospital medicine at the frontline, I try my best to always remember this. Despite the challenges of modern medical practice, it’s always these one-to-one moments and the building of rapport with patients and their families that make being a doctor special; the noble profession that it should be.

But all nostalgia aside, it is this very basic premise of medical practice that appears most under threat in today’s medical environment, as the ability of frontline doctors to spend adequate time with their patients is shrinking faster than ever before. As I finish a 10 to 12-hour plus day, I often go home contemplating how much of that time I have actually spent with my patients and their families. Is it 50 percent, 40 percent, 30 percent? Inside, I know it’s probably much less.

Having worked in several different hospitals since finishing my residency, my experiences are not unique to any one institution. There is of course nothing new about this complaint. We physicians have been bemoaning this issue for decades. But there’s one crucial difference in our new technological age of medicine. Now, instead of demands to see more patients in less time or increased bureaucracy from insurance companies, it is the time we are spending with computers that is increasingly taking us away from our patients.

And sadly, most acutely affected are the frontline specialties where our interactions matter most — also including family and emergency medicine.

A much discussed study published within the Journal of General Internal Medicine focused on the work habits of today’s medical interns. The results made depressing reading. Interns now spend only 12 percent of their time in direct patient care and up to 40 percent in front of computers. Comparison to prior studies shows that this percentage has gotten significantly worse since the 1980s.

I can well believe it. In my capacity as a teaching attending, it seems to me that most times I seek out my interns and residents on the medical floor, I will usually find them sitting in their chairs, eagerly typing away on a computer or reading something online (maybe it’s because we conduct so much of our social lives online, or perhaps I’m a little old fashioned, but I always find something less studious appearing when I see anyone sitting in front of a computer as opposed to having their heads down reading or writing).

And far from this problem being unique to physicians. Glance down any modern day hospital floor, and you will see nurses — the very heart of direct patient care — frantically wheeling around their portable computers, glued to their screen, typing notes and scanning their medications. How much are we taking away from our patients when we give our nurses such excessive demands for computerized data entry?

One solution that is bandied around is to take computers away from desks and into patient rooms, performing all documentation tasks at the bedside. Unfortunately, this will likely be even worse for patient care. Looking at a screen and typing away for most of our interaction will reduce physicians to semi-automated, robotic workers — not that dissimilar from an airport check-in agent or shop cashier. It will be so impersonal to patients, not to mention annoying, when they are divulging the innermost details of their personal illness.

As humans, we always value personal interactions, especially when it comes to our health. We wouldn’t be impressed in any other industry if the professional we desired to speak to kept flitting their eyes in between us and a computer screen (none of us would even put up with it in a regular conversation). Hopefully this isn’t the future of medicine, although it sometimes appears like the direction health care IT is taking us.

All that being said, we must not forget the other side of the coin. We are living in an era of change like no other in human history. Science and technology are transforming health care in unimaginable ways, and the pace of change is only going to accelerate exponentially. Who can say with certainty that an iPhone won’t replace the stethoscope soon?

People are living longer and healthier than ever before and cures for previously hopeless diseases are on the horizon. Computers and information technology have brought enormous advantages to medicine in terms of information accessibility, data collection, and patient safety. Studies have proved the multifaceted benefits of initiatives such as computerized order entry. We still need faster access to complete medical records (those days when we trawled through piles of thick charts already seem so long ago). We also need greater communication between health care entities.

So, yes, medical technology is a force for good. Many doctors themselves have jumped on the bandwagon, and are dedicating their careers to health IT, often admittedly as a way of getting away from direct patient care. Fair enough, but I also question why anyone who seriously enjoys computers and sitting in front of screens more than their daily interactions with patients, would have became a doctor in the first place!

In my specialty, much of the increased time with computers is as a result of policies such as meaningful use and a transition over to computer-based charting. But there just has to be a better way of doing this. And that’s the key to this whole problem. How can we make sure that all of these computerized tasks that we are doing actually give value to what really matters – the patient?

So here is my advice for all the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and IT whizkids (many of whom may have scarcely set foot in a hospital before) who want to create the new multi-billion dollar technology to “revolutionize health care”: Never forget the sacred doctor-patient relationship. Design your products with this in mind, and ensure that technology never comes in between the two. At every corner, enhance rather than take away from the interaction between doctors, nurses, and their patients.

Far from advocating a withdrawal from technology, the answer is to design smarter and better systems that promote ease of use and maximum time with patients. Certain features should be utilized such as rapid logging in to the desired screen, minimal clicking, touch screens, and more succinct data entry methods.

The only way this will happen is for all of us to work together, with frontline physicians and nurses fully involved in every step of the design process. Some IT professionals that I’ve met have asked me where opportunities lie for moving from pen and paper to digital. That’s the wrong question; it isn’t just an opportunity for business ventures (not to mention the fact that not everything we did in the days of pen and paper was wrong). The philosophy has to be about improved patient care.

So is this slide towards computers and impersonal medicine inevitable? It shouldn’t be, and it will be our generation of clinicians that will either allow ourselves to become semi-automated, or to keep the doctor-patient relationship where it rightfully belongs — at the front and center of all health care. The goal must be for the majority of our time to be spent with our patients.

Even if only 51 percent, that’s a start, as we tip the scales in favor of direct patient care. The course of the ship can still be turned, and collectively as a profession, we can do it. So when I next have that thought at the end of the day about how little time I’ve spent with my patients, I will remember that the deal is not yet done on the future of medicine. I remember that I’ve yet to meet a patient who thanks me for spending time in front of a computer. Until I do, I’m happy to keep trying to spend more time with them rather than my screen.

There are certain universal truths when it comes to humanity, and Hippocrates had it right over two millennia ago when he offered another pearl of wisdom for everyone in health care: “Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.”

That’s the human side of medicine that no computer can ever touch.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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