the Doctor and the Doll

Late last month, 45 thousand of the brightest minds in healthcare technology gathered in Orlando for the annual gathering of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HiMSS).  IBM CEO Ginny Rometty talked about how artificial intelligence was ushering in a new golden age for healthcare delivery.  Several companies marched out amazing 3D imaging software that enables physicians to see and interact with medical images the way they would with real, physical objects. And EHR giant Epic announced it was introducing two new versions for smaller hospitals that couldn’t quite afford but didn’t necessarily require all of the features of its standard software platform.  This last bit of news got me to thinking.

The Doctor, the Doll, and Healthcare IT.

Every time the conversation revolves around to the EHR revolution in healthcare, I'm reminded of that 1929 Saturday Evening Post cover featuring Norman Rockwell's "The Doctor and the Doll."  The old country doctor with his stethoscope pressed against the doll, held so intently by the little girl, is medicine being practiced as it should be.  

Personal.  Emotional.  Caring. 

But the folks at the University of California-San Francisco conducted a study concluding that patients are less satisfied with their care when clinicians use the computer during their appointments.  The study found that physicians who spent more time using the computer, spent less time making eye contact with their patients and tended to spend more time in what the study called "negative rapport building," like correcting patients about their medical history based on information contained in their electronic health record.

The Journal of the American Medical Association had been talking about this issue long before EPIC and Cerner were a part of our everyday lexicon.  But maybe it’s time to ask how we as technology professionals weigh the power of today’s EHR-driven approach (and all the inherent benefits of instant information sharing), with the reassuring touch of a doctor’s hand to the arm, or a sympathetic look deep into a patient’s eyes.  Do we in IT have a role to play?

Healthcare IT should be governed by one simple principle.  It’s not about bits and bytes.  It’s not about datacenters and monitoring and management. It’s about patients.  It’s about doctors and nurses and their ability to do their jobs and spend as much time as possible with the men, women, and children they’ve spent their lives learning how to treat. 

It’s about saving lives and making the quality of life better for those seeking care. Keyboards and computer screens should be a means to an end.  Norman Rockwell wasn’t a healthcare IT professional, but we’d be wise to remember his vision of the Doctor and the Doll every day.

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