Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives


I AM NOT A ROBOT (not a Luddite, either)

robot pt

Last summer my beloved Mercury Milan decided to give me mechanical problems, for the first time in the five years I had owned it. It simply refused to start occasionally, without any causality that my mechanic or I could discover. After several nerve-wracking months of this (along with the inevitable and infuriating responses from mechanics: “It starts just fine for me”), I was ready to drive it into the Ohio River. It probably would not have started so I could get it there, though.

I finally convinced a mechanic at the dealership to put the car on the computer for diagnosis. As both a former nurse and present patient, I liked that word diagnosis, and had no qualms about using it for the vehicle I had anthropomorphized by naming it Mahitabel, projecting both positive and negative emotions and reactions on its “behavior,” and more recently developing a love/hate relationship with it. The diagnosis, according to the computer, was that on several occasions in the past few months someone had tried to start my car with a key that did not belong to the car. Therefore, it did not start.

It took about ten more minutes of questioning by the mechanic, who proposed the possibility that someone was trying to steal my car, and answers by me insisting that this made no sense at all, before he looked carefully at my car key. It was bent, and one tiny place may have been chipped. He made me a new key and my buddy Mahitabel and I have traveled together predictably and smoothly ever since.

My point? The computer (a machine) understood more about my car (a machine) than both the mechanic and the owner. Yet both the mechanic and the owner had to engage in some research and analysis on the human level before the “diagnosis” could be corrected and treatment applied. The computer supplied data based on its programmed knowledge of the vehicle; the humans provided the ability to utilize both inductive and deductive reasoning, applied to real-life, present-world situations, to ascertain the actual problem.

This brings me at last to the reason I am writing this post. Two years ago, I posted “The Healers,” in which I compared the observations and insights of an African traditional healer with the best of today’s physicians, noting that in each case the healer was most effective when working as a caring and observant human healer to a human patient. I concluded that computers could not take the place of any physician true to his or her calling .

Two years later, I have more reason than ever to challenge the efficacy of computers in the exam room of a physician’s office. In fact, I would go so far as to say that along with insurance company rules and overreaching legislation intended to make physicians toe the (sometimes contradictory) lines drawn by groups of people who lack the training and calling of the physician, the present demands of computer program doctoring have the capability of being the last straw that finally destroys medicine as we know it.

As the title to this article insists, I am not a Luddite. I love technology, especially when it works. I love the capabilities of the internet, and the ability to keep up with friends and relatives both far and near. I enjoy being able to get online on a busy day and save myself hours of shopping, and have the desired object delivered to my door within 24 hours. I love needing an answer quickly, and finding it; needing an outline of resources for research, and locating them with ease. But it is also these answers and resources that become the problem. I have to exercise my ability to discern the junk from the credible; the scams from the honest reports, because all that this wonderful piece of machinery can provide me with is the data that has been entered, just like my experience with the computer at the car dealership. It can’t make human judgements for me. Without my education and my experience, the overwhelming amount of unquestioned data could get me into a lot of trouble.

Therefore, I am concerned about the time my physicians must spend entering data about me into a limited machine. I am a sociologist, after all, and acutely aware of the reality that whenever humans are the subject of analysis, results are immediately complicated by a lack of predictability, and of psychological understanding; accuracy is also complicated by the uniqueness of every human being and his or her response to a given situation, whether physical or otherwise. And no situation for any patient is completely within the realm of any one discipline. We are affected by more than our pain—we are emotionally affected by its consequences, or by outside considerations that have nothing to do with the pain, but that affect our lives. We are affected intellectually by our understanding of the meaning of the pain, and what it may mean for ourselves and those closest to us; this translates again into emotional effects, which may or may not complicate the situation of the pain and therefore any understanding of the real diagnosis and best treatment.

That only considers the tip of the iceberg. It is dehumanizing to both doctor and patient to reduce medical practice to the inadequate data that can be acquired from, or placed into, a machine. It is dehumanizing to try to explain one’s most frightening and intimate problems to someone who may never look you in the eye, or ask a question not required by the computer program. Especially when that computer operator is frustrated because he or she is not familiar with the program, or because it is not working properly. How do you know if the diagnosis or treatment is going to be safe and effective under these circumstances?

Worse, how do you trust that the information entered into that computer is correct? I can’t tell you how often I have read reports of my office visits only to wonder whose record has been confused with mine. I have read “patient states” something I not only did not state, but that wasn’t true. I have read reports of findings of physical examinations that never took place….and also failed to accurately reflect my physical condition at the time. Yet in years past—even after computers were commonplace—when doctors simply dictated their reports of office visits the results were informative, correct, and usable. I know, because for years I used to type up those dictated reports, and saw letters of thanks from recipients like other physicians, insurance companies, and physical therapists who were able to understand and make use of them.  I even learned a lot of medicine from their logical presentation of cause, effect and treatment.

Even more important, however, is the effect of human touch: The caring hand on a shoulder while explaining a difficult prognosis; the gentle holding of the hand of a terrified patient. The healing effects of caring human touch cannot be measured, and certainly cannot be replaced by a machine of any kind.

I do not propose to take computers away from medical practice, but only that the computers not take the physician away from medical practice. We were intelligent enough to invent computers, and I would hope that we would be intelligent enough to discern the times when their data gathering and sorting capability can be used to best advantage, while the very human, intuitive and caring abilities of our physicians remain in the human realm where they are most effective. Perhaps then physician suicides might drop from more than 400 each year, and more brilliant young people might consider the medical field desirable.

 We need human physicians, because we are not robots.

robot doc

1 Comment

EXPECTATIONS: Helpful and Otherwise


Overheard in a college hallway: “I am who I am! I cannot be responsible for his expectations of me.”

The tone of voice was stressed, angry. The speaker was obviously struggling in some relationship where she felt the pain of believing she was expected to measure up to some standard with which she did not agree, or believed she could not meet. Her anger at not being accepted for that of which she felt capable seemed fed by her guilt that she had not measured up to the standards of someone important to her.

Or, was I projecting? Was I reading too much into a simple declaration, simply because it resonated so deeply? Who among us has not at some time felt the pangs of inadequacy, having somehow failed to be the person that a parent, teacher, friend or spouse thought us to be? More important, who of us is not guilty of verbally projecting our expectations on another in a judgmental fashion, capable of stripping the other of self-confidence and a sense of belonging.

Strange Family

Strange Family

As the Academic Dean of a small college in an rural area where students received a suboptimal education, as both student and faculty advocate I was often called upon to mediate the issues arising when faculty from more cosmopolitan backgrounds failed to recognize the intelligence and potential of their students, judging them only on their failure to have been adequately prepared for college level work. Faculty would often disparage the students publically, claiming they would not work, could not learn, and should not be in college. Their expectations of the students were as low as their claims, and the relationships between those faculty and their students were broken and painful. Neither group expected anything good to come from the other.unhappy 1

Yet my own experience with these students was that on the whole (of course there were exceptions – there always are) the more I expected from my students and the more I recognized their exceptional qualities, the harder they worked and the more they succeeded. Further, they returned my love and respect for them, and for each other. The same was true for my students in Africa, as well as for my students in a large city-based university.

The principle, I believe, crosses cultures and generations. I first heard it stated from a young OB-GYN physician who had been charged with overseeing residents, interns and patients in a central city hospital clinic. I had the privilege of working for him as he changed the appearance, the attitudes, and the quality of care at that clinic. Where it had been said patients were “herded like cattle” into the clinic area itself, and then into exam rooms where they were prodded, talked about over their heads between the teaching and learning physicians as though the patient was a dumb animal, where the environment itself was dirty and depressing—there was change. In an attractive, welcoming environment where every patient was treated as well as paying patients in a private doctor’s office, we were able to observe the change from surly, quarrelsome and often unwashed patients to patients who were no different from those in any doctor’s office, where they trusted their caregivers and returned the respect they were given.

What that young physician believed and lived by, and helped everyone around him to emulate, was the statement he always made: “People will respect themselves and act accordingly if they are treated with respect and dignity.” Most did just that.

What I told my faculty members was “These students will live up to—or DOWN to—your expectations. Either outcome will be elicited by your treatment of them.”

Expectations make us or break us. Expressed in love as realistic possibilities that honor and dignify the humanity of the other, they can inspire. Expressed as a judgment of the failures of the other, or as a goal absolutely not in accord with the dreams and goals of the other, they are destructive. And that includes the expectations we have of ourselves.


Leave a comment

Has the War on Doctors been Lost?

According To Margalit Gur-Alie (founder, BizMed), “There really is no war on doctors. There is a war on patients, and doctors are merely collateral damage [emphasis mine]. You [doctors] are an exploitable asset, to be bought and sold like cattle…” In this ingeniously constructed article, Gur-Alie turns the entire idea of “social capital” –- heretofore a positive concept within which we value human dignity, and also show how the poor and oppressed of the world can become the authors of their own freedom-—on its head.

Assigning the term “social capital” to patients, doctors (formerly wealthy and powerful, by inference) as social capital are nullified at worst, and become mere agents of the “owners” of production –- in this sense, the insurance companies, and probably beyond them the international economic cartels that control them –- doctors whose sole purpose is to maximize the productivity of the “covered lives” assigned to them.

The article is interesting on several levels. One of the benefits of growing old is that you get to watch old theories die and be reborn in new calls to action on behalf of a new chosen population. In this neoMarxist work, we see the Bourgeoisie (both new “owners” and the old “owners” – doctors) on one side, and the Proletariat (workers, or patients in this case) on the side populated by the oppressed. The final section of the paper is a manifesto, calling the (workers of the world) patients to arm themselves with knowledge, and unite to save themselves.

I’m all for it! To a sociologist, this is conflict theory doing its job. My problem with the article is that the conflict perspective is only one of the many that are useful for understanding any complex social issue. Like any perspective used alone, it can narrow our understanding of the issue to the point of defeating its own cause by essentially disregarding facts that don’t fit in its worldview, even while stating them. In this article, for example, Gur-Alie claims that there is no war on doctors, then spends the first four paragraphs of the article exposing what has happened, and is continuing to happen, specifically in order to disempower the medical profession as a whole.

By implication, the author is saying that the war on doctors began when the first HMO opened its doors, and is proceeding as scheduled to the inescapable “new world order” in which doctors will be mere employees, judged only by their financial productivity (like piece-workers in a factory?). Here is where I have trouble understanding whether the author sees this as a bad thing, or merely a fait accompli.

At any rate, whether near its end or only begun, there is a war on doctors. And, as so clearly outlined by Gur-Alie, on patients as well. It is manifest in the current drug wars, and in the attempted coup being conducted by insurance companies to claim ownership of medical practice.

This war may become as life-threatening as any fought with the more conventional weapons of destruction.