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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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    Apr 1 2013: Hi Neema,

    I understand the concern, and I think it is important to train doctors to realize that machine-produced data should not alone dictate their diagnosis. It requires an experienced eye to check the validity of machine-produce data, and vice versa. As long as doctors equally value their experience and machines and do not rely too heavily on either one, I think technology can only help us in medical diagnosis.
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      Apr 2 2013: I agree Kyung.

      Humans make mistakes as well. In most cases, human error occurs much more frequently than machine error. Technology is quite useful when it comes to redundancy of outputs and consistency. However, the most fool-proof way would be to have a check system where the doctor and machine must be in accordance. The reliance on technology is useful as it save human time and allows for a higher level of productivity.
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        Apr 3 2013: Jon has a great point. I think that Doctors and Computer technology must act together. Building on each's ideas and discoveries.

        Doctors today gain SO MUCH information from the medical technology at their fingertips. In fact, when one hospital doesn't have the right test equipment, they'll send out a patient to get a certain test just because every bit of extra information can make a difference!

        However, as Neema suggests, there is a case to say that perhaps too much weight is placed on the information of a computer. Computers have an incredible ability to synthesize information and compute probabilities, but they cannot think outside of the box (literally) when it comes to information that needs to be viewed in a more creative manner. This is why Dr. House gained so much popularity. He was a doctor who was able to come up with diagnoses based on facts that were often NOT based in medicine or tests. There is so many more factors than just test results that go into proper doctoring and ultimately that is why services such as webMD.com will never truly be able to replace good old fashioned medicine!

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