How technology affects the physician-patient relationship

A couple of recent readings tie nicely together. In the latest issue of The Hastings Center Report, Naalla Schreiber tells of a hospital stay during which her complaints were not easily attributable to any obvious medical problem. Her physicians used the code words “functional syndrome” to describe her problems, and she described her treatment as less than pleasant. Until of course, tests finally provided a medical diagnosis, confirming what she had suspected all along. In the meantime, she became what many physicians would regard as a difficult patient. It’s not like Schreiber is new to the medical profession either: she is a practicing psychiatrist. Her analysis of the situation puts some of the blame on technology:

“As medicine becomes more technology-oriented, less time and emphasis are placed on learning and practicing the art of the doctor-patient relationship. Patients, are viewed as the sum of their diseases, rather than as unique individuals with physical, emotional, and spiritual needs that impact their health.” 

Well said, and here’s to improved communications!

The independent practitioner is also being hit from all angles, one of which is the drive toward more technology. The New York Times relates the story of a physician whose business is threatened by lower reimbursement and the need to see more patients in order to continue as a viable business. His patients like the extra time and personal attention he enjoys providing them, but he cannot do both. The physician’s son explains that his father’s business model “is going to be extinct very soon,” and notes that the amount of time and money needed to employ an EHR system would be another blow to his ability to keep the business going. Fewer and fewer physicians are self-employed, as more join large groups and specialize.

Is there a balance then? Must the “personal touch” and technology be mutually exclusive? Is there a way medicine can become more technology oriented while maintaining respect for the human component? Does it matter? Each patient has a narrative, and so does the medical profession. How will that narrative read in another ten years?


– Rod Piechowski

© 2011 The Art of Medicine and Technology

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