Can IT save medicine's soul?

By Jeff Rowe
09:29 AM

More often than not, health IT advocates get excited about the myriad ways technology could be used to help doctors do a better job of providing care. But what about using IT to help doctors go back to being doctors, period?

That's essentially the opportunity this newly minted MD, who also used to work for Google, wants her colleagues to grab. 

When it comes to IT, she pitches herself as a "both sides of the tracks" sort of person.  

On the one hand, "I think decision-support algorithms have the potential to reduce errors and save our healthcare system a boatload of money by passing a greater share of patient care down the ranks to clinicians who are less-highly-trained and, therefore, less expensive, leaving physicians time to focus on more complex cases and interventions."

But on the other hand, she's also "sympathetic to the view that the last thing modern medicine needs is more machines and less humanity."

That, however, is not what she sees happening as a result of more health IT, if, that is, we get the transformation of healthcare delivery right.

As she sees it, "handing off data storage and processing tasks to machines that will almost invariably perform them more accurately and efficiently than we do could free us from the computational burden we've rightly created for ourselves. If phase one of modern medicine was acquiring the scientific knowledge and concepts to dramatically improve health outcomes, phase two is designing information systems to liberate physicians' inner hard discs and working memories, so to speak, as well as their calendars, leaving more room for the human side of medicine, what I believe we will always do better than machines – caring for patients."

There is, of course, nothing inherent in IT that will inevitably lead us directly toward a "soulless" medical system. But there's no denying the tendency IT has in many instances to result in less, rather than more, human contact. And that’s not really what we're after.

As she puts it, "True care demands sophisticated, time-intensive interpersonal communication, relationships, and counseling with patients. It requires internalizing the important distinction between medicine and healing, between treating the body and treating the soul, yet understanding that these are two sides of the same coin."

Putting the potential another way, she says, "letting computers do healthcare's more algorithmic work might allow us the time and emotional space to re-establish the Art of healing."

And that's an art most patients still want their doctors to practice.

This post originally apeared on HIMSS Future Care.

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