Have We Lost the Healing Touch? the Medical Profession's Love Affair with Technology May Have a Chilling Effect on Relations between Doctors and Their Patients

Article excerpt

I admit it: I love technology. Its potential astounds me. A friend of mine with a laparoscope takes an appendix or a gallbladder out through a couple of half-inch slits, watching the cutting end of a sleek tube on TV. Another, with his PET scanner, images people's brains every two seconds while they listen, think and talk. Still another uses the most advanced oscilloscope to guide an electrode through the brain of a Parkinson's patient, tracing the territory of the brain's motor centers. He's searching for cells he can burn out, thereby freeing someone from tremor and paralysis. Yet another monitors a dozen different measures in newborn babies' blood through a teeny cuff on a minuscule fingertip; the cuff is connected to a big bank of displays with colored blips and numbers. It's cool, it's pretty and it helps battle illness. If you haven't felt technology's power, you will. To paraphrase an old saying, there are no Luddites in hospital beds.

The question is, have we--doctors and patients--fallen so in love with technology that we are losing sight of its proper role? We reach out and touch it, as if to absorb its power. Never mind that 85 percent of the information needed to make a typical diagnosis comes from the history, a conversation with the patient. Or that the rest comes from the physical exam and some simple tests. Technology takes years to master, and doctors in training have only so many years. Will young doctors be prepared for the countless times when slick technology is not the best solution? Will they be able to guide frightened, vulnerable people through life-and-death decisions and know when to stop? Or will the machines take on a life of their own, as doctors who have never really learned to listen or to touch become appendages to computers? We have gotten to where we simply don't feel cared for unless we are on the frontier of technology. "No MRI scan? What's the matter, aren't I good enough?" "No genetic screen? Don't stint, Doc, I want the best." But technology can come between us and our doctors, who may be afraid to talk to patients and their families--and even more afraid to touch them in today's litigious atmosphere. Doctors are rarely sued for applying high technology, but they are often sued for omitting it. "Why didn't you do that test, Doctor?" is one question no physician wants to hear in court. As countless new gizmos come online, both doctors and patients need more and more discipline to resist overusing them. …