Technology gone a step too far: Grand Canyon, Museum of Modern Art, and lessons for healthcare

Smartphone

I remember the day like it was yesterday. My first glimpse of the Grand Canyon is a moment I’ll never forget. The year was 1998, I had just finished high school, and I was enjoying a much-needed vacation after my final exams. It was my first visit to the United States and my mother and I were on an organized coach tour from New York to San Francisco. The tour took us through almost half the states in the nation, taking in some of the most famous cities and National Parks along the way. But out of all the magnificent sites we saw, it was my visit to the Grand Canyon that stuck with me the most. Awesome in its’ size and splendor, like most visitors, I was captivated with the sheer scale of the canyon, the beautiful colors, and the intricacy of the rock formations. Our tour group spent a memorable evening watching the sun set over the South rim. We were all from different parts of the world and had already spent a couple of weeks together. We soaked up the atmosphere, chatted away, isolated from our normal everyday existence. No distractions—all worries seemed a long way away (I had some myself, since my upcoming exam results would determine whether I would get into medical school!). It was such a pleasure to be away from it all, surrounded by this beautiful spectacle of nature.

I had always meant to go back to the Grand Canyon, but it wasn’t until over a decade later as an Attending Physician that I finally managed another visit. In all, I’ve been back twice so far, and each time I’ve again been in a small tour group. However, something has been a bit different about these subsequent visits, which were both made in our new technological age. Unlike that day in 1998 when all we had were the old film-style cameras (digital cameras had not yet entered the main consumer market and cell phones were still relatively rare), many tourists can now be seen using their smartphones, not just to take photos, but also to stay connected with the outside world. Younger people especially will be attempting to instantaneously text or share their pictures and will often be glancing down at their device almost as much as they look at the canyon. Cellphone ring tones and alerts going off. Messages are being received and calls taken. My last visit was a couple of years ago, and it’s likely the trend has gotten even worse as smart devices have become more ubiquitous. For this reason, part of me dreads my next visit to the Grand Canyon as I can totally imagine what it will be like: More people glued to their screens—sending pictures and exchanging messages through Facebook, Twitter or whatever other App they may be using. This certainly doesn’t feel like that same isolated and amazing Grand Canyon I first visited all those years ago.

Fast forward to a recent visit I made to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Sticking to the same broad theme, I was shocked and rather disappointed by what I saw. Here we were in one of the finest art museums in the world, among great works by van Gogh, Picasso and Warhole—yet the museum encourages its’ visitors to use a smart device during their visit to learn about all the pieces of work. An App can be downloaded or a device can be purchased from the main reception. The result? A significant number of people will be walking around the museum with their heads down, glancing and constantly clicking on their devices to get information about the artwork. By the time many of them leave the museum, they would have spent more time looking down at their screen rather than the magnificent art on display. It’s understandable how some museums may be keen to jump on the technology bandwagon, but it would be refreshing to see an art museum saying that they wish to keep printed signs displaying information only, so as to enable the visitors to stroll around and appreciate all the artwork properly. People can always purchase a guidebook or headphone commentary device if needed, and other languages can also be catered for, but an art museum must do everything it can to encourage people to actually look up at the art! I wonder how much we’ve lost as humans when we cannot go to the Grand Canyon or Museum of Modern Art and walk around undistracted, simply in awe of what’s in front of us.

Gosh, I must sound like a real technophobe. Let me confess, I actually like my smartphone, laptop, and internet connectivity just as much as the next person. I happen to think that technology is amazing and has transformed the world overwhelmingly for the better. But at the same time we should also pause to consider how much we’ve lost. For instance, look around now in any public place and half the people will probably have their heads buried in their smart device. I remember reading a quote from someone that smartphones have taken away the ability to elegantly sip wine in a restaurant while waiting for someone. Very true! Some may argue that it’s better than being bored, but it surely can’t be a good thing that our smartphone has become the “default” thing to pick up and use at every opportunity.

So finally what, you may wonder, does this have to do with healthcare and medicine? Well quite simply, I see the same problem manifesting itself in healthcare. Technology is being adopted and utilized with little concern about how it affects the human experience. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about this issue in my previous articles, including the suboptimal healthcare technologies we use and how they take doctors and nurses away from where they should be—with their patients. While information technology may bring numerous advantages in terms of data access and availability, we are losing a lot of focus on what really matters to our patients. Ask any patient what they really want from their healthcare interaction (aside from the cure), and their answers are usually quite simple—a comfortable time in a healing environment and adequate time with compassionate doctors and nurses. A recent study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine revealed the worrying statistic that medical interns now spend only 12 percent of their time in direct patient care, and up to 40 percent in front of computers. Nurses, the very heart of patient care, are also increasingly (and often even more so than doctors) burdened by data entry demands. Look down any modern day hospital floor and you will see the nurses frantically wheeling around their portable computers—devoting more time to their screens rather than their patients. A lot of this problem is the fault of current IT solutions, which are inefficient and slow. They take away, rather than add, to the doctor-patient interaction. Hopefully, as we design better systems we will swing the pendulum back towards direct patient care.

I’ve met many people who work in information technology, well intentioned and technologically brilliant, who seem to believe that IT is the answer to all healthcare’s woes. They give me the impression of wanting healthcare to be made some type of technological or online experience, especially when it comes to engaging patients and improving patient satisfaction. However, just like nature and art, there are some parts of life that simply cannot be made technology experiences. No technology can substitute the value of a face-to-face conversation between doctor and patient (and not a conversation that is disturbed by a computer, where the doctor barely looks at the patient). When someone is feeling unwell, emotional and vulnerable; there can be few initial sweeter pills than a caring and compassionate human being to speak to. A real interaction that forms the core of the doctor-patient relationship. Therefore, barring few exceptions, healthcare—especially hospitalizations—should never be a technological experience any more than you would want your next mountain hike, beach holiday, or hotel stay to be one.

Today’s institutions need to get over the mentality of believing that everything needs a “technological solution”. Some things simply don’t. Whether we’re talking about a National Park, an art museum or a hospital, we are going to have to decide where to draw the lines of where human experience is more important than technology. Although being ill is of course very different to experiencing nature or art, the same principle still applies. Healthcare IT will undoubtedly be a source of great progress in the years to come, but this shouldn’t be at the cost of the human side of medicine.

How do we stop and perhaps reverse this trend towards technology in every facet of our lives? We could start with not allowing our museums and National Parks to become “technological experiences”. We should encourage the younger generation to simply see, feel and experience some wonder. And if we want to look for real-life examples—fortunately, there are still lots of people around us who know how to do it right. They would be the baby boomer generation and older, silver haired and wise, who haven’t succumbed to the technological revolution like we have. They can be found in National Parks looking around and taking in the scenery. They can be found engaging in conversation in a public place without glancing down at their smart device. They can be seen on the subway calmly reading a newspaper. We can indeed learn a lot from our elders.

 

Also visit Suneel’s blog at:  www.HealthcareImprove.com