Thursday, October 15, 2009

Embracing science but reliquishing the soul

Jerome Groopman writes in the New York Review of Books that our fascination with technology and the commodifying of the practice of medicine may be stripping it of its human element:

At the conference, an animated discussion followed, and I heard how changes in the culture of medicine were altering the ways that the young doctors interacted with their patients. One woman said that she spent less and less time conversing with her patients. Instead, she felt glued to a computer screen, checking off boxes on an electronic medical record to document a voluminous set of required "quality of care" measures, many of them not clearly relevant to her patient's problems. Another resident talked about how so-called "work rounds" were frequently conducted in a closed conference room with a computer rather than at the patient's bedside.

During my training three decades ago, the team of interns and residents would move from bedside to bedside, engaging the sick person in discussion, looking for new symptoms; the medical chart was available to review the progress to date and new tests were often ordered in search of the diagnosis. By contrast, each patient now had his or her relevant data on the screen, and the team sat around clicking the computer keyboard. It took concerted effort for the group to leave the conference room and visit the actual people in need.

Still another trainee talked about the work schedule. Because chronic sleep deprivation can lead to medical mistakes, strict regulations have been implemented across the country to limit the amount of time any one resident can attend to patient care. While well intentioned and clearly addressing an important problem with patient safety, the unintended consequence was that care became more fragmented; patients now were "handed off" in shifts, and with such handoffs the trainee often failed to learn how an illness evolved over time, and important information was sometimes lost in the transition.


But only recently has medical care been recast in our society as if it took place in a factory, with doctors and nurses as shift workers, laboring on an assembly line of the ill. The new people in charge, many with degrees in management economics, believe that care should be configured as a commodity, its contents reduced to equations, all of its dimensions measured and priced, all patient choices formulated as retail purchases. The experience of illness is being stripped of its symbolism and meaning, emptied of feeling and conflict. The new era rightly embraces science but wrongly relinquishes the soul.

More here. Indeed, the "management economics" people that Groopman mentions are the operations researchers I wrote about in my last post -- these practitioners continuously focus on "costs", "throughput", "bottom line". They are trained that way, and sometimes the constant use of a particular type of language -- despite the best of intentions -- can in fact change one's worldview.

Other healthcare pieces: Reforming Healthcare in the United States; Healthcare Costs: The Atul Gawande New Yorker essay. And Pauline Chen writes about mindfulness in medicine.


Krishnan said...

Hari, my Deepavali wishes.

Hari said...

Thank you very much Krishnan -- and my wishes to you too!