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Neema Aggarwal

Electrical Engineering Student, The Cooper Union for the Advance,

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Do we rely too heavily on technology for medical diagnosis?

This week in my bioelectricity class, we discussed electric fields that can be measured on the body (eg the brain, skin, eyes) and the ability to interpret signals for diagnosis, lie detection etc. Currently, there exists clinical decision support systems (CDSS), which are interactive computer software systems designed to aid doctors with medical decisions. Various test results and other data from the patient is inputted into a CDSS which then processes it and provides a list of possible diagnosis and options for treatment. The problem is, like all machines, they can often make crucial mistakes.

Dr. Lisa Sanders, a physician at Yale School of Medicine, and technical adviser for the popular TV show, House, wrote a book called “Every Patient Tells a Story” dealing with the uncertainty doctors face when analyzing a patient’s symptoms. Sanders says that misdiagnoses account for as much as 17% of medical errors. She discusses how despite the many technological advances made recently, sometimes these diagnostic tools are to blame. Relying too heavily on machines and lab results can result in symptoms being missed. Or on the other hand, sometimes exam results are normal; blood tests, electrocardiograms, CT scans, all may suggest a healthy body even when that is not the case. It can take a trained, experienced eye to notice small details in the patients’ behavior to unravel the mysteries of an unknown illness. Sanders states, “For all the data they collect, machines lack important components for diagnosis. They cannot hear a patient’s story, touch a patient’s skin, or look into a patient’s eyes.”

My question is, have we become too dependent on machines and technology to make medical decisions for us? Have doctors been lured into a false sense of security by allowing tools like CDSS to provide answers? How can the value of intuition which comes only from experience be balanced with technology without being lost? Can machines ever be a good enough substitute for doctors?


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    Mar 29 2013: Well, I think technology is very very useful to understand the unknown world but it has also got some limitations. We have to take the results with pinch of salt. But in most case what doctors do is to rely heavily on test results for diagnosis. This may be because of human nature to protect one self from any kind of blames or responsibility.

    In India, there were Aurveda doctors called " Vaid". They had excellent understanding of our body. I still remember, when I was 12, I had visited one such Vaid along with my father. He was around 65. He was diagnosing every patient by just pressing his hand on one's wrist & noting down the pulses. I still wonder how come he was able to diagnose the problem of any part of body by just watching pulses ? No instruments ! No tests ! And yes, he was no quake. I did a kind of small survey of patients & found that he was 98% correct about the diagnosis !

    Though it is very sad that this kind of knowledge has not been passed to present generations but the point is that many of the ailments can be diagnosed without any tests but we have become very much dependent on technology and we are loosing faith on our own intelligence ! ( or may be we are not trying to test our intelligence ?)
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      Mar 29 2013: Hello Jayprakash,
      Wow, that is really incredible. I wonder if that was just a gift or a real skill that could be taught and passed along. I agree with you that human nature is to protect ourselves from blame and perhaps that is why it is easier to let the machines make the difficult decisions rather than face them ourselves.
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          Mar 30 2013: ".....any illness is attributable to an imbalance of our inner energies, so they treat the cause rather than the symptoms." ya, that is the root of Aurveda system. And that is one of the reason that treatment as per Aurveda takes long time as it tries to treat the root cause. But the real paradox is that people do understand but do not have " time" and ultimately they prefer quick fix.
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        Mar 30 2013: Oh, that was not just a gift. They do study Aurveda and after years of experience they are able to get hold of such quality. It is really skill & it is unfortunate that nobody is interested to acquire & learn that skill and because of that, the skill has almost died. I did try to contact such Vaids & all had one answer - we want to teach but nobody really interested are coming forward to learn this. Sad but true.

        What I think should be done is to take knowledge of such persons and blending that with modern technology can provide us very low cost instruments that can diagnose most of our ailments.

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