Take Two #75: Medicine Losing the Big Picture

By Kyra-lin Hom

Does technology make people dumber? Normally I'd vote 'no.' I love technology and believe it allows us to challenge our brains in new ways. I mean, yes, every once in a while I catch myself entering 2+4 or 6x6 into a calculator and then have to momentarily hang my head in shame. But for the most part, I am very pro tech. Recently, I had an experience that made me question that belief. It was... a doctor's visit.

Doctors and medical professionals are supposed to be really smart. They have to study all the natural sciences, research and mathematics, be able to step back and see a whole picture out of numerous symptoms like one of those crazy murals made out of thousands of tiny photos (called photo mosaics). This is traditionally a field for smart people. Well, my friends, that tradition may be slipping. And among other things like failing financial motivation (the true brains go into finance or super specialize now) and medical insurance soul-sucking booby-traps, I blame technology.

My opinion may surprise those of you that know I come from a medically inclined family. For those who don't know, my mom's a nurse and my dad's a doctor. As an infant, my dad literally carried me in a backpack as he made his hospital rounds. My after-school routine for most of grade school involved some form of a medical staff lounge. I learned how to file charts as a hobby. I was even a diabetes finger-stick guinea pig when my parents first opened their private clinic years ago. (I still love holding that over their heads.) You get the picture.

Up until a couple years ago I'd been ensconced in the caring hands of R.N. Mom and Dr. Dad – both of whom are a bit old-school and very good at what they do. Being forced to leave the nest by my medical insurance came with a bit of culture shock. Here's where I started finger-pointing at technology.

It's well established that everything in the body is connected. That's why so many institution marketing teams are pushing what should be the redundant monicker 'holistic healthcare.' And there are many studies on information retention and critical thinking that prove actively engaging with the data is crucial. So tell me, when a medical professional takes notes on your condition via selecting the pre-set, best-fit categories from a computer drop-down menu, how is this engaging with the 'whole' picture at all?

I mean come on, the only skills exhibited by the medical assistant during my last doctor's visit were using velcro, hitting a power button and approximate transcription. I'm not saying she, herself, is dumb in any way. I'm saying that the standardized, automated routine has allowed her to disengage her brain.

One of my most memorable doctor's visit was at my college campus's medical center. My knee had been really hurting (love those high intensity sports). I wanted to see what the on-campus doc would recommend. Well, the first thing he did was take a look at my knee and go (I kid you not), “What is that?” Um, sir, that's my swollen tendon. It's what I'm here to be seen for? We didn't exactly progress from there.

I recently had a comparable experience. Coming out of this doctor's office (I haven't been able to see my doctor in a year) I had in my possession a referral for a surgery I didn't need or want, a referral for physical therapy I also didn't need or want, a referral to a specialist who later had no further information for me, an online printout about a condition that I didn't have, and a cure-all heavy hitting medication because my doctor didn't know what was wrong with me. I felt like jumping and flailing my arms in the air yelling, “Here! I'm right here!” I came in with four issues, was seen for three, stumped the doctor on two, and received treatment for one.

Maybe I'm just being harsh – it wouldn't be the first time. Or maybe we're nudging our medical system in the wrong direction. Remember that photo mosaic reference I made earlier? Well instead of seeing the big picture, our current mainstream approach to medicine is sorting each of the tiny photos by date, size, color and resolution. What we end up with is several well-organized but meaningless lists, and we've lost the big picture entirely.

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