During my last year in medical school, I was sitting on a bus on a cold winter day when I realized that my finger tips felt numb. I took off my gloves and watched the color of my fingers go from white to blue to red. I knew from my studies that this was Raynaud’s phenomenon and was caused by the blood vessels in my fingers becoming narrowed (going into spasm) due to the cold. I also knew that this was a relatively common problem in women. Unfortunately, I also knew that it could be a sign of something more serious, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Medical students are known to be hypochondriacs and I went to see my physician the next day convinced that I was gravely ill. He was an incredibly warm and caring person and explained to me that he didn’t think it made sense to test for all the things it could be and that we should just see what happened over time. He reassured me and I felt better. This was doctor-patient communication at its best.
I believe strongly that the relationship between a doctor and a patient can lead to healing by itself. And there is little question that doctors have less time to listen to us than they did many years ago – in fact some studies suggest that it is as little as 7 or 8 minutes on average. And with more diagnostic tests available – specialized x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, etc – doctors are more likely to perform tests than take the time to listen to us. If they are using an electronic health record, they may seem more interested in entering information than in hearing what we have to say.
But technology also has the potential to change medicine for the better if we use it to empower patients, save time, improve efficiency and promote healing. The HIMSS (Healthcare INformation and Management Systems Society) conference is taking place March 3-7 in New Orleans. The conference brings together leading health information technology vendors and opinion leaders to talk about (and showcase) electronic health records, smartphone apps, and other technology advances. While I am not at the conference, the keynote address by Dr. Eric Topol got a lot of attention in the press and in social media circles. Much of what he had to say is included in his excellent book, The Creative Destruction of Medicine.
Here are a few of the ways that technology can improve the practice of medicine:
- We can collect more useful data (evidence) and put patients in charge of their own data. Using sensors that are attached to the body or using smartphone apps patients with diabetes can track their blood sugars and those with heart rhythm problems can track their EKGs in order to maintain their own health
- Doctors and patients can communicate with each other using social media, text messages, etc. to strengthen their connection, improve the flow of information and avoid unnecessary face-to-face visits
- Patients can learn from each other (and doctors and other healthcare providers can learn from them) using online patient communities such as Patients Like Me
- By using technology to study the DNA in people’s bodies we can predict which diseases they are at risk of getting. By looking at the DNA in cancer cells we can target treatments to the particular DNA problem (mutation) that is causing the cancer cells to grow.
Apparently,while on a plane after leaving the conference, Dr. Topol was asked to assist a fellow passenger who felt ill and required medical attention. He used a device on his smartphone to check her heart rhythm. Afterward, he tweeted:
Diagnosed atrial fib, rapid VR for a woman in distress today on a plane at 30K ft, no emergency landing req’d #CDoM http://twitpic.com/c8xcqx
I’m sure the other passengers saw the benefit of technology.