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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: Interesting conversation!
    Has anyone considered the value of testing in remote-access medicine? I'm thinking about experiments in the US with telemedicine communications between isolated practitioners in remote settings via internet access to experts in large medical centers with access to sophisticated testing facilities. Some test result analysis can be requested via long distance (blood work and the like, or analysis of X-Ray images). Expert physicians are called upon to consult in the analysis and interpretation of test results in the patients' home town with their primary healthcare provider. This offers the benefit of extra input for isolated practitioners and no need for patients to travel a great distance for (at least initial) medical evaluation.
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      Apr 1 2013: Hi Donna,

      I totally agree that remote-access medicine would benefit the outlook of medical care across the globe. This idea is among many that I think would augment the work of physicians both now and in the future through the use of technology. We could definitely use more of this, and other technology encouraging physicians to communicate and collaborate.

      I just want to point out that like any good thing, too much of it could be harmful. I suppose the question at the heart of this conversation is as follows: how much medical technology is too much? Clearly, the question and the answer are both dynamic entities, which makes it rather difficult to nail down a quasi-definite solution...

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