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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 30 2013: We may first consider a case where diagnosis is effective. This is so with regard to machines whose ‘health’ can be monitored periodically or continuously by analyzing say vibration signals with good software. This is because the science involved is known though in rare cases there may be problems of interpretation.
    The human machine is far more complex. While good technology picks up the signals accurately their interpretation is far more involved. Medical expertise of known doctors may be built in into the software but still it falls short.
    The extent to which technological diagnosis can be used is not easy to define. Caution should be the watch word.
    Another issue that concerns me is the diminishing role of general practitioner who has the capability to look at the patient in a holistic manner. Each expert is looking at one part of the body thoroughly as if they are independent. We should give more emphasis to general medicine and make it more valuable.
    When experience really helps in diagnosis it may perhaps be termed insight rather than intuition. Any interesting idea like figuring out the disease by sensing the pulse alone by a vaid can be useful if it can be translated into a diagnostic tool for others as well. The validity of claims also then becomes established. Research is needed.

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