One time I went to my wife’s OB/GYN appointment and I was in shock and awe with how well the doctor remembered my wife’s past pregnancies. Literally down to the tear that occurred. The reason I was in shock was that she prefaced her memory of my wife’s medical history with “Your old chart is off in storage, but as I recall you had a…”
While year later I’m still impressed with this OB/GYN’s ability to remember her patients, I know that this is not always the case. Doctors are humans and can’t possibly remember everything that occurred with every patient. Humans have limits. In fact, doctors deserve credit that they’ve provided such amazing medical care to so many patients despite these limits.
My esteem for doctors grows even greater when I think of the challenges associated with diagnosing computer problems (Yes, I am the nerd formerly known as @techguy). It’s not easy diagnosing a computer problem and then applying the fix that will remedy the problem. In fact, you often find yourself fixing the problem without really even knowing what’s causing the problem (ie. reinstall or reboot). While fixing computers is challenging, diagnosing and treating the human body has to be at least an order and probably two or more orders of magnitude more complex.
My point is that the work doctors do is really hard and they’ve generally done great work.
While I acknowledge the history of medicine, I also can’t help but think that technology is the pathway to solving many of the challenges that make doctors lives so difficult today. It seems fitting to me that IT stands for Information Technology since the core of healthcare’s challenges revolve around information.
Here are some of the ways technology can and will help:
The story of my wife’s OB/GYN is the perfect illustration of this potential. Doctors who have the right information at the point of care can provide better care. That’s a simple but powerful principle that can become a reality with healthcare IT. Instead of relying on this OB/GYN’s memory, she could have had that information readily available to her in an EHR.
Certainly, we’re not perfect at this yet. EHR software can go down. EHR can perpetuate misinformation. EHRs can paint the incorrect picture for a patient. However, on the whole, I believe an EHRs data is more accessible and available when and where it’s needed. Plus, this is going to get dramatically better over time. In some cases, it already is.
Deep Understanding of Individual Health Metrics
Health sensors are just starting to come into their own. As these health sensors create more and more clinically relevant data, healthcare providers will be empowered with a much deeper understanding of the specific health metrics that matter for each unique patient. Currently, doctors are often driving in the dark. This new wave of health sensors will be like turning the lights on in places that have never seen light before. In some cases, it already is.
Latest Medical Research
Doctors do an incredible job keeping up on the latest research in their specialty, but how can they keep up with the full body of medical knowledge? Even if they study all day and all night (which they can’t do because they have to see patients), the body of medical knowledge is so complex that the human mind can’t comprehend, process, and remember it all. Technology can.
I’m not suggesting that technology will replace humans. Not for the forseeable future anyway. However, it can certainly assist, inform, and remind humans. My phone already does this for me in my personal life. Technology will do the same for doctors in their clinical life. In some cases, it already is.
Think about how dramatic a shift it’s been from a patient chart which the patient never saw to EHR software that makes your entire record available to patients all the time. If that doesn’t empower patients, nothing will. I love reading about how many kings use to suppress their people by suppressing information. Information is power and technology can make access to your health information possible.
Related to this trend is also how patients become more empowered through communities of patients with similar conditions and challenges. The obvious example is Patients Like Me, but it’s happening all over the internet and on social media. This is true for chronic patients who want to find patients with a rare condition, but it’s also true for patients who are finding the healthcare system a challenge to navigate. There is nothing more empowering than finding someone in a similar situation that can help you find the best opportunities and solutions to your problems.
In some cases, patient empowerment is already happening today.
Yes, I know that many of the technologies implemented to date don’t meet this ambitious vision of what technology can accomplish in healthcare. In fact, many health technologies have actually made things worse instead of better. This is a problem that must be dealt with, but it doesn’t deter me from the major hope I have the technology can solve many of the challenges that make being a doctor so hard. It doesn’t deter me from the dream that patients will be empowered to take a more active role in their care. It doesn’t deter me from the desire to leverage technology to make our healthcare system better.
The best part of my 11 years in healthcare IT has been seeing technology make things better on a small scale (“N of 1” –@cancergeek). My hope for the next decade is to see these benefits blow up on a much larger scale.