The one job robots can never take away from doctors

Robots read EKGs. Computers interpret chest X-rays. Algorithms decide which treatment a patient gets.

I asked myself this question this morning, “What job can I do as a doctor that cannot be done by a computer or a robot?” And one of the first things I said to myself was, “Comfort a human.”

But I dwelt on this for a moment and found it’s not quite true. Because computers and robots can offer comfort to a human. They can react to our negative inputs or habits. Facebook does it everyday. But, at least not now in the early 21st century, humans, in general, don’t accept the comfort that these algorithms provide. Just as if I were feeling down or upset, I wouldn’t turn to an algorithm of “yes/no” or “if this, then that” responses. Humans don’t want a computer to calculate their risks or offer immediate solutions. Many humans simply desire another human, who they feel connected to, to hear them. To be with them. To care for them. Solutions can and must come later, for some already know what they must do to get better. But in the moment, humans need humans to be present and to care for them.

Many computer interface skills we currently do could be replaced by robotics and computers. But few will be able to replace a human connection that we can provide, coupled with medical knowledge and clinical expertise to boot. I think of a lady I saw in clinic who had woken up with a tick attached to her arm that she said was most likely brought in from the woods the day before. She came into our family medicine clinic to find out why it was hurting and ask whether or not she was at risk of developing Lyme disease or another tick-borne illness. After listening to her story and confirming risk factors from her history and physical exam, we determined she was low risk for contracting Lyme disease. This patient had already searched online for these symptoms and diseases, she knew what to look for, and she had had tick bites before.

Why did she come in? I knew why. She looked troubled and was seeking evaluation and reassurance. I assuaged her fears by saying (and later verifying with the attending physician) that she was very low risk and she needn’t worry. She looked to be at ease. When the attending physician and I came back in together to tell her this, she left with an easier look on her face and words of, “Thank you for seeing me today at short notice.” She left with an easier load to bear.

This is what I can provide. A face. A smile. A caring touch. A knowing eye. And the attitude and disposition to combine all the above into a positive, human encounter that leads the human on the other end to feel cared for, valued, and understood.

We can advance and secure our place in the healthcare field for generations to come if we will choose to connect with our patients. Let the automated systems and artificial intelligence come; they will enhance our abilities to detect and diagnose diseases. But in our day-to-day patient care, may we remember the words of Teddy Roosevelt: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Jeffrey Cannon is a medical student and can be reached on Twitter @jcannon1993.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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