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Tend To ME ... Not Your MACHINE

Margaret Lapsanski

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margaret lapsanskiIt is no secret that we live in a world consumed by technology. In the past couple of years, advances in technology have touched every industry—mostly for the better. People now can shop, listen to music, watch movies, buy coffee, and even work—all from their phone. Books, magazines, and newspapers now are read on one of the many electronic tablets in the market. In other words, Welcome to the Machine.

There have been advances in medicine and surgery making recovery easier and treatments for various illnesses readily available. The medical world also has seen a push towards an online culture. Medical records are no longer kept with paper in big binders, but in software systems developed for hospitals. Medical histories—including test results, surgeries, allergies, and past illnesses—are all easily accessible to doctors within one system. As for possible interactions between various medications a patient might be on ... don't worry, there's an app for that!

I have to wonder though, how has all of this electronic updating changed the interaction between doctor and patient? Is the patient getting more or less attention from their medical teams? Are we losing an important connection while the glow of the computer screen illuminates the examination room? With the multi-tasking of talking, typing, and updating, is the patient really getting the appointment they deserve?

I noticed a change in the visits with my doctors over the last year. It was a slow and gradual change but one that made me sit back and reflect on my time in the system. Due to Cystic Fibrosis and a bi-lateral sequential lung transplant, I am no stranger to doctor visits. When I was younger, I would do my pulmonary function tests, which were then printed out for the doctor. Afterwards, I would sit across from the doctor in his office while he reviewed all of the tests, and we would have a conversation. We would talk about my health, necessary courses of action, new treatment plans, and how I was doing in general. There was sporadic note taking but nothing that ever distracted his attention away from me, the patient. I always assumed that when my appointment was finished and I left the office, the doctor would complete his sheet for the day and update my medical record.

Fast forward to 2012, when technology has taken over the world. I go into the office and the physician is able to pull up all my test results right on the computer. This obviously is more efficient and all information is readily available for the doctor and the patient. However, when it comes to the conversation with the patient, this is where I am noticing disconnect between patient and doctor. I am talking, but my doctor is focused on updating the electronic medical record—ferociously typing away on the keyboard. It is evident my doctor can hear me, but is he really listening to what I am saying? I wonder if he even knows the color of my eyes.

By not looking away from the computer, the physician could be missing important cues from his patient delivered through body language and gestures. If the doctor is concentrating on getting information into the system instead of making eye contact with his patient, it is a lot easier for the patient to tell him that they have been fully compliant, when in reality they have been cutting corners. Patients who are chronically ill also may say that they feel perfectly fine when they are not well. Doctors who are looking at their patient, fully attending to the conversation and concentrating on their patient, will be able to see these cues more readily.

There is no denying the fact that technology has been a positive addition to medical care. My pulmonologist can check to see how my appointment with my oncologist went. My endocrinologist can get results from tests that my otolaryngologist ordered. This reduces duplicate testing, keeps all doctors up to date on all of my ailments, and hopefully reduces human error in the process. My transplant would never have been possible without advancements in medical technology. However, for all physicians out there, I implore you to look away from your computer. Pay full attention to your patient and update those electronic files later. Do patients have to compete with a machine for the attention of their doctor? After all, you never know when a patient might ask you the color of their eyes are or if you noticed Angelina Jolie's leg!

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.