Replacing doctors with technology: Don’t knock on my door yet.

The house was getting cold.  My wife and kids snuggled in their blankets as I crept out of bed and checked the thermostat.  The subzero winter air howled as a blustery morning took shape outside our windows.   I looked at the digital display with disbelief and manually tapped the screen with my finger, hoping that the jarring motion would loosen the exact faulty screw leading to our frigid state.  No luck.  The thermostat was working just fine.  The problem was much more sinister.  I covered myself with a blanket and ran to the basement.   I paused for a full minute to listen.  Not a peep.  The furnace was absolutely silent.

A few hours and a hefty credit card charge later, a workman strolled into our house.  His bag overflowed with a  gaggle of steel and electronic tools salivating at a chance to sink their jaws into our machinery.  After much tinkering, adjusting electrodes, and forehead scratching, a pronouncement was made.  A few pieces of equipment were procured from the van and adjustments were made.  To our relief, the sweet hum of air passing through vents once again filled our house.  We  sat underneath the counter top, and bathed in the heated air rising from the bowels of the house.

Until, of course, an hour later when a loud clanking sound announced the end of our geyser of contentment.  The temperature plummeted.  Phone calls were made.  And the process started all over again.  Two weeks, various repairmen, and multiple diagnostic tests later, we were no closer to an answer.  The heater would spit and sputter, work for a few hours, and then shut down ominously.

Finally, one of the workers noticed that our air intake valve was pointed in the exact same direction as the exhaust.  Hot air was leaving the exhaust, entering the intake valve, and overheating the system.  It took him seconds to adjust.  The problem never reoccurred.

Years later, as I ponder this cold episode in my family’s life, I am flabbergasted that a supercomputer didn’t exist that could have been hooked up to our furnace and immediately diagnosed the problem.  It appears that heater repairmen are unlikely to be put out of business by the vast expertise of technology.  And they are not alone.

As of this time, no one has created the technology to replace lawyers, accountants, or airline pilots yet either. Sure there is QuickBooks, autopilot, and LegalZoom.  But when push comes to shove, the technology to overthrow these fleshy human beings is just not agile or savvy enough.

Yet time and again, technophiles dream of a world in which Dr. Watson or Dr. Google takes the place of our stethoscoped brethren.  They say that instead of diagnosticians, physicians will be trained to be experts in empathy.  They will be culled from film schools, and broad liberal arts educations.  They will recite poetry instead of treatment plans.

I can’t help but think that maybe these oracles, these technologists, need to refocus.  Shouldn’t we concentrate on logical systems with finite variables to practice on first?

Figure out how to replace auto mechanics and appliance repairmen.  Then maybe, maybe you should knock on my door.

Jordan Grumet is an internal medicine physician and founder, CrisisMD.  He blogs at In My Humble Opinion.

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