The human vs. digital in healthcare–breaking the human connection?

Back in September, when Vinod Khosla was predicting that digital health would frog-march physicians into Chateau Obsolescence along with buggy whip makers and battleship designers (while serving his own interests well), the Gimlet Eye felt quite lonely in its skepticism, especially among the hypesters shouting hosannas. Editor Donna can now reassure the Eye of its surprising ally: David Shaywitz, co-founder of the Boston-based Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH), writing in The Atlantic. While collecting data, documenting and evidence-based decision making all are needed and desirable in medicine, he says:

“…there is a vital human connection that is threatened because it’s so difficult to reduce to zeros and ones. The danger is that if we don’t find a way to recognize, express, and capture the value of the human connection in medicine, we are unlikely to preserve it, and it will become engineered out of healthcare – at least until an entrepreneurial, humanistic developer appreciates just how important and valued such connection can be.”

Yet another development, called ‘medical microwork’, may be part of this breaking of the human connection. Small tasks, such as reading digital X-rays or interpreting basic medical tests, can be outsourced (not a word used in the article) to trained workers in developing countries. This may work to the advantage of patients in developing countries–and create skilled jobs–but in more advanced systems may further divorce the doctor from the patient. The buzzy, grabby headline does not help: Got a mobile phone? Soon you might be able to earn money as a doctor. Co-Exist (Fast Company)

In this zeitgeist, even the spiritual must be proven, quantified. The New York-based, 51 year-old HealthCare Chaplaincy, which provides multi-faith spiritual support as part of palliative care to metropolitan New York patients and families struggling with serious health situations, is funding research to demonstrate the validity of professional health care chaplaincy as an evidence-based clinical field. These six studies undertaken by teams of physicians and chaplains are with medical institutions across the US and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. This is an encouraging counterbalance to the trend of ‘machines’, ‘big data’ and the Quantified Self as the Ultimate Solution to Everything Healthy. HealthCare Chaplaincy grant announcement. Disclosure: Editor Donna is acquainted with the work of the HCC as a member of their volunteer Marketing Advisory Council.