Why computers will never replace human doctors–unless we give them the chance

Over the past ten years, there has been a big discussion about telemedicine and Web MD-like services that would be able to diagnose patients from their homes, pick the best medications based on evidence, and follow up with patients all without the hassle and stress of the hospital. It’s utility at its finest: people reduced to algorithms, the best possible outcome, with mechanistic precision.

But despite continued speculation, ten years later, people still faithfully make appointments with their doctors. Why? If they wanted a biochemistry explanation, there are plenty of great websites. If they wanted to visualize how a drug works, there are great YouTube videos, and in fact, a channel dedicated entirely to medical videos called MedTube. There are even awesome med students who take the time to explain physiology and treatments in detail on the Internet, in newspaper columns, etc. So why do these people still take time off from work to go see the doctor?

The too-simple, too-obvious answer is that they want to be treated like a human being.

A website can’t empathize with you. A machine can’t even pretend that it’s paying attention to how you feel, or catch the nuances in your tone. A website can’t joke with you, ask how your kids are doing, or catch you when you’re lying about taking ALL your cholesterol meds. And when you’re in the hospital, a machine can’t hold your hand, smooth back your hair when you’re dry heaving, and tell you that you’re doing a good job.

But at the same time, machines can’t be assholes. They can’t rush out of the room because they have somewhere more important to be, condescend, or ignore you because your shoes have holes in them and your breath smells like alcohol, like doctors sometimes do. None of us are saints. We are all a little insecure, overworked and over-committed, and have control issues. But we are still obligated, on a professional and personal level, to treat our patients and our colleagues with humility and graciousness.

So, docs and docs-in-training, this is a gentle call to remember that the reason that your patients are coming to see you today is because both of you are only human. Respect that fact and you will get so much more out of your daily work.

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About the friendly intern

Ask a question: The Friendly Intern My personal blog: Pathos and Pathology
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One Response to Why computers will never replace human doctors–unless we give them the chance

  1. smiley4rang says:

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this! So informative and touching 🙂

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