One of the topics that I write most about is the interaction of health care information technology with frontline clinical medicine, which I believe to be among the most critical issues facing the practice of medicine at the moment. With statistics now suggesting that doctors (and nurses) are spending an absolute minimal amount of their day engaging in direct patient care — some research suggesting as little as 10 percent for new doctors, with the majority of the rest staring at a screen — health care really finds itself at a crossroads. Do we stay true to our ideals as physicians, keeping medicine essentially a social and personable profession? Or do we reduce doctors to “type and click bots” who spend the vast bulk of their day performing data entry tasks and furiously clicking and checking off boxes instead of spending time with their patients and thinking problems carefully through?
Unfortunately, health care information technology in its current state has done more damage to the doctor-patient relationship than any other one thing over the last decade. Ask any doctor who’s been around for a length of time (especially in a generalist specialty), and they will tell you straight up that IT represents one of their biggest daily frustrations. It’s not that physicians are anti-technology (I certainly am not and love all my gadgets as much as the next person). It’s just that the current crop of IT solutions are not reconciled and fully optimized with frontline clinical workflow. There are so many improvements that need to be made so that we can tip the balance back towards our patients while making the most of the amazing technology now at our fingertips.
An experience I had in the hospital drummed home this message for me. I found myself sitting next to two older physicians. They are both great doctors who I’ve known for some time, and they both very much remind me of the old-school professors who taught me so much back in medical school. They are completely dedicated to their patients, extremely knowledgeable and are usually the last doctors to leave the hospital in the evening. There had been a small change in the computer system — “small” meaning not a new electronic medical record, but a tweak of the existing one — and I saw these two older physicians really struggling to navigate the system. It wasn’t the most thought-out design (very few are, and I’ve worked with nearly all major electronic medical records). These doctors needed a lot of help to work their way through it. Some other colleagues and I tried helping them, and after some time, they were able to figure things out. Frustrated, head in hands, they then bemoaned the current state of medicine and how issues like this were driving them toward retirement. I knew that these doctors were very old-school (old-school physicians are undoubtedly the best!), and they remarked how they hardly spent any time with their patients anymore. They were excellent doctors, and I knew their patients loved them.
As I watched them staring at the screen and struggling, I felt a mixture of emotions. At first, I felt sympathy — younger doctors don’t like spending so much time staring at the screen either. Then, I felt disappointment. Disappointment that doctors like them, who believe in solid bedside medicine, physical examination and face-to-face communication skills are being replaced by “type and click bot” doctors. What will become of those great teachers of medicine who I learned so much from — those doctors who would spend most of their day interacting with patients on rounds and only a few minutes at a time writing notes and giving their orders? Finally, I began to feel a little fury inside of me. Fury that these two amazing doctors were frustrated, staring anxiously at their screen and spending their valuable time ticking boxes and clicking their mouse instead of sitting by the bedside and practicing the trade they are so good at. For every excess minute they spent on the computer, a patient was deprived of time with their trusted doctor.
As we stand at this crossroads in health care, let’s not lose sight of the unbelievable work that doctors from this generation have done and how loved they are by their patients. We can’t let the art of good and thorough bedside medicine go with them as they retire from clinical practice. Art is a good word actually. Despite all the technological advancements around us, medicine is still very much an art. In some ways, it’s a performance. The world of administrators and technologists need to understand this and work with frontline clinicians to keep humanity and personal relationships at the core of medicine. Nobody who goes to medical school anticipates spending 80-90% of their day sitting in front of a screen. No doctor, nurse or patient wants that. So what exactly are we doing here? When the old-school generation of doctors leaves, I fear for what’s left and who our role models will be.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.
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