Indeed, science and technology provide opportunities to improve outcomes in ways not even imagined 100 years ago, yet we must acknowledge that technology also threatens to erect barriers between us and our patients. We can be easily tempted to confuse new care delivery tools with the actual care itself.
Threats to the physician-patient relationship
Medical history provides many examples of how our zeal to innovate can have untoward consequences to the physician-patient relationship.
In the late 1800s, for example, to convey a sense of science, purity of intent, and trust, the medical community began wearing white coats. Those white coats have been discussed as creating emotional distance between physicians and their patients.1
Even when we in the medical community are slow and reluctant to change, the external forces propelling us forward often seem unstoppable; kinetic aspirations to innovate electronic information systems and new applications seem suddenly to revolutionize care delivery when we least expect it. The rapidity of change in technology can sometimes be dizzying but can at the same time can occur so swiftly we don’t even notice it.
After René Laennec invented the stethoscope in the early 1800s, clinicians no longer needed to physically lean in and place an ear directly onto patients to hear their hearts beating. This created a distance from patients that was still lamented 50 years later, when a professor of medicine is reported to have said, “he that hath ears to hear, let him use his ears and not a stethoscope.” Still, while the stethoscope has literally distanced us from patients, it is such an important tool that we no longer think about this distancing. We have adapted over time to remain close to our patients, to sincerely listen to their thoughts and reassure them that we hear them without the need to feel our ears on their chests.
Francis Peabody, the eminent Harvard physician, wrote an essay in 1927 titled, “The Care of the Patient.” At the end of the first paragraph, he states: “The most common criticism made at present by older practitioners is that young graduates ... are too “scientific” and do not know how to take care of patients.” He goes on to say that “one of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”2
We agree with Dr. Peabody. As we embrace science and technology that can change health outcomes, our patients’ needs to feel understood and cared for will not diminish. Instead, that need will continue to be an important aspect of our struggle and joy in providing holistic, humane, competent care into the future.
Twenty-first century physicians have access to an ever-growing trove of data, yet our ability to truly know our patients seems somehow less accessible. Home health devices have begun to provide a flow of information about parameters, ranging from continuous glucose readings to home blood pressures, weights, and inspiratory flow readings. These data can provide much more accurate insight into patients than what we can glean from one point in time during an office visit. Yet we need to remember that behind the data are people with dreams and desires, not just table entries in an electronic health record.
In 1923, the German philosopher Martin Buber published the book for which he is best known, “I and Thou.” In that book, Mr. Buber says that there are two ways we can approach relationships: “I-Thou” or “I-It.” In I-It relationships, we view the other person as an “it” to be used to accomplish a purpose, or to be experienced without his or her full involvement. In an I-Thou relationship, we appreciate the other people for all their complexity, in their full humanness. We must consciously remind ourselves amid the rush of technology that there are real people behind those data. We must acknowledge and approach each person as a unique individual who has dreams, goals, fears, and wishes that may be different from ours but to which we can still relate.