Sunday, February 27, 2011

Abraham Verghese on Watson's role in hospitals

Watson would be a potent and clever companion as we made our rounds.

But the complaints I hear from patients, family and friends are never about the dearth of technology but about its excesses. My own experience as a patient in an emergency room in another city helped me see this. My nurse would come in periodically to visit the computer work station in my cubicle, her back to me while she clicked and scrolled away. Over her shoulder she said, “On a scale of one to five how is your ...?”

The electronic record of my three-hour stay would have looked perfect, showing close monitoring, even though to me as a patient it lacked a human dimension. I don’t fault the nurse, because in my hospital, despite my best intentions, I too am spending too much time in front of the computer: the story of my patient’s many past admissions, the details of surgeries undergone, every consultant’s opinion, every drug given over every encounter, thousands of blood tests and so many CT scans, M.R.I.’s and ultrasound images reside in there.

This computer record creates what I call an “iPatient” — and this iPatient threatens to become the real focus of our attention, while the real patient in the bed often feels neglected, a mere placeholder for the virtual record.

That's his NYTimes piece. Here's an excerpt from the end of the article:

I find that patients from almost any culture have deep expectations of a ritual when a doctor sees them, and they are quick to perceive when he or she gives those procedures short shrift by, say, placing the stethoscope on top of the gown instead of the skin, doing a cursory prod of the belly and wrapping up in 30 seconds. Rituals are about transformation, the crossing of a threshold, and in the case of the bedside exam, the transformation is the cementing of the doctor-patient relationship, a way of saying: “I will see you though this illness. I will be with you through thick and thin.” It is paramount that doctors not forget the importance of this ritual.

An answer that might have been posed on “Jeopardy!” is, “An emergency treatment that is administered by ear.” I wonder if Watson would have known the question (though he will now, cybertroller that he is), which is, “What are words of comfort?”