Op-ed: The inevitable rise of technology in medicine at the cost of human touch

Wednesday, July 5, 2017 - 5:30pm

In just under a century, humanity has gone on to create revolutionary medical devices that have saved millions of lives. Within the next century, doctors will be replaced by artificial intelligence, surgeries done by world-renowned surgeons will be conducted by near-perfect robots and citizens of developing countries will be receiving proper healthcare. These aren’t optimistic statements, but in fact, they are very realistic, and we should accept this change. But to what extent do we sacrifice what it means to be human to the hands of artificiality?

By placing a dependency on tests such as CAT scans and MRIs, “we not only overlook simple diagnoses that can be diagnosed at a treatable, early stage, but we’re losing so much more than that,” Dr. Abraham Verghese, a physician and professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, stated during his TED talk “A doctor’s touch.” “We’re losing a ritual.”

He goes on to describe this ritual as “the power of the human hand — to touch, to comfort, to diagnose and to bring about treatment.” This is not to say the medical scans have been faulty, but rather, it is our growing dependence on them that raises this concern. I mention this because during my sophomore year of high school, I had injured my wrist after falling in basketball practice. The pain was gradually increasing, as was the swelling. Nonetheless, I went home with some ice assuming it would heal overnight. The next day, my wrist was more swollen and the intensity of pain was greater, which resulted a trip to the hospital to get X-rays. Not one thought had occurred to go to my pediatrician to get an expert opinion before having to get X-rays. This conscious yet quick decision showcases a prime example of how quick we are to turn to technology rather than seek a health professional’s opinion.

For some reason, we need proof of the disease or injury before we fully trust the expertise of a doctor. But when it comes down to the matter, it is the doctor’s words that are most comforting while we strive to distance ourselves from the very proof that shows that we are hurt or ill. Will a greater dependence on technology leave patients with little to no emotion? Imagine a conversation with a Siri-like artificial intelligence software instead of a nurse or doctor. It will ask about your background, your symptoms, your medical history, just like your doctor; however, with a monotone voice showcasing zero compassion and empathy to how you are feeling. There is also an off-chance of the following conversation to take place:

Artificial Intelligence: Hello. Please state your name, age and reason for the visit.

Me: My name is Sarang, I’m 19 and I’m feeling a bit under the weather today.

Artificial Intelligence: Ok Sirong, the weather is 75 degrees with sunshine all day.

Me: I want a real doctor.

If artificial intelligence today can barely pronounce my name, how will it be able to understand my pain and my emotions? Of course, technology of this caliber would have to be tested thousands of times before engagement with real patients, but the genuine, comforting conversations we take for granted today would certainly disappear. Just how many of us grew up with having conversations with our doctors? I’m sure we’d like the same for generations to come.  

These conversations may in fact be a privilege to many individuals, as another argument arises regarding the incorporation of technology, specifically for ordinary sick visits, which would certainly be very cost effective and efficient in developing countries. To those who lack access to proper healthcare, a quick, cheap machine could do wonders. Take for example the country of India. Home to over a billion people, it has about 0.725 physicians per 1000 people according to the World Health Organization as of 2014. By calculating proportions, that gives the country around 725,000 physicians in the country. Now compare this to the United States, which has 2.554 physicians per 1000 people. With a little over 320 million people, that would give the country approximately 817,000 physicians, almost 11 percent more than India. That’s about 80,000 more physicians in a country that is a third in population size than India. It’s safe to say that technology would positively disrupt the healthcare system by improving the lives of millions in not only India, but also similarly developing countries.

While it makes complete sense to use technology to better mankind, a computer will never replace the art of building a doctor-patient relationship. Vinod Khosla stated in his article, “Technology will replace 80 percent of what doctors do." Physicians will actually get more time to spend with their patients due to a detailed understanding of the medical results with the help of technology. By replacing the time a doctor spends collecting data with a smarter, efficient machine, the doctor can talk to the patient. The best of both worlds, right? It’s a bit scary to think about the rise of technology. With its help, revolutionary breakthroughs occur, yet there is always a sacrifice, whether it be money spent or human touch. There is no stopping this advancement, but it is vital to preserve what makes us humane. Maybe there is a synergistic relation between the machine and the doctor waiting to blossom, but for now, let’s appreciate the human touch for as long as we can.

Sarang Modi is a junior in the college of Literature, Science, and Arts