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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 31 2013: The answer to this question is yes, as it is to any group becoming too reliant on technology. Like all things in life it is about balance. The best practitioners of any skill balance the old and the new, technology and intuition, patience and agression. Those that understand the balance are the ones that can turn a skill into an art.

    For thoe who have decreed it is about generating revenue, you may be right in a few cases. In my experience though, it has been more about the fear of loosing money from having to pay out a settlement on a lawsuit, rather than generating the revenue of the test itself.

    In listeneing to many medical practitioners at different levels I think the biggest and fastest growing shortcoming is the ability to listen. Society is moving away from direct perosn to person, face to face contact, and the ability to ask questions, listen for nuance andsubtelty in answers and then answer patient questions seems to me to be the bigger lost art that would negate much of the need for excess technology.
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      Apr 1 2013: Hi Mark

      Thank you for your thoughts! Do you work in the medical field?

      Out of no experience, only opinion, I also agree that we rely too heavily on technology for medical diagnoses. Apart from the misdiagnoses and lawsuits and money settlements, the loss of personal care and and custom patient diagnostics is getting lost in the wires of technology. Medicine is no longer about understanding the patient, the story and the symptoms, but about being able to control a machine and read what it pops out. This isn't to say that medicine has lost the need for skill and education, but I fear that push-a-button technology makes room for much error and turns medicine into more of a business than an honorable profession.
      • Apr 2 2013: I have been a paramedic for over 20 years Swetha. I see this craving for technology from both sides of the equation. Not only do the practitioners want this high tech protection, but I think the patients do as well. I have seen and heard patients unhappy that providers are not more aggressive in providing the latest technology in testing, when old fashioned testing is proven to be just as efficient or older treatments just as effective. Newer is better, it is what has made Apple into the giant it is.

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