Monthly Archives: October 2012

Caring Technology

The critique of contemporary medical treatment as impersonal, uncaring, and disease-focused usually invokes the dehumanizing perils of high technology.  The problem is that high technology is a moving target.  In the England of the 1730s, obstetrical forceps were the high technology of the day; William Smellie, London’s leading obstetrical physician, opposed their use for more than a decade, despite compelling evidence that the technology revolutionized childbirth by permitting obstructed births to become live births.[1]  For much of the nineteenth century, stethoscopes and sphygmomanometers (blood pressure meters) were considered technological contrivances that distanced the doctor from the patient.  For any number of Victorian patients (and doctors too), the kindly ear against the chest and the trained finger on the wrist helped make the physical examination an essentially human encounter.  Interpose instruments between the physician and the patient and, ipso facto, you distance the one from the other.  In late nineteenth-century Britain, “experimental” or “laboratory” medicine was itself a revolutionary technology, and it elicited  bitter denunciation from antivivisectionists (among whom were physicians) that foreshadows contemporary indictments of the “hypertrophied scientism” of modern medicine.[2]

Nineteenth-century concerns about high technology blossomed in the early twentieth century when technologies (urinalysis, blood studies, x-rays, EKGs) multiplied and their use switched to hospital settings.  Older pediatricians opposed the use of the new-fangled incubators for premature newborns. They  not only had faulty ventilation that deprived infants of fresh air but were a wasteful expenditure, given that preemies of the poor were never brought to the hospital right after birth.[3]   Cautionary words were always at hand for the younger generation given to the latest gadgetry.  At the dedication of Yale’s Sterling Hall of Medicine, the neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing extolled family physicians as exemplars of his gospel of observation and deduction and urged  Yale students to engage in actual “house-to-house practice” without the benefit of “all of the paraphernalia and instruments of precision supposed to be necessary for a diagnosis.”  This was in 1925.[4]

Concerns about the impact of technology on doctor-patient relationships blossomed again in the 1960s and 70s and played a role  in the rebirth of primary care medicine in the guise of the “family practice movement.”  Reading the papers of the recently deceased G. Gayle Stephens, written at the time and collected in his volume The Intellectual Basis of Family Practice (1982), is a strong reminder of the risks attendant to loading high technology with relational meaning.  Stephens, an architect of the new structure of primary care training, saw the “generalist role in medicine” as an aspect of 70s counterculture that questioned an “unconditional faith in science” that extended to medical training, practice, and values.  And so he aligned the family practice movement with other social movements of the 70s that sought to put the breaks on scientism run rampant:  agrarianism, utopianism, humanism, consumerism, and feminism.  With its clinical focus on the whole person and liberal borrowings from psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, family practice set out to liberate medicine from its “captivity” to a flawed view of reality that was mechanistic, protoplasmic, and molecular.[5]

Technology was deeply implicated in Stephens’ critique, even though he failed to stipulate which technologies he had in mind.  His was a global indictment: Medicine’s obsession with its “technological legerdemain” blinded the physician to the rich phenomenology of “dis-ease” and, as such, was anti-Hippocratic.  For Stephens, the “mechanical appurtenances of healing” had to be differentiated from the “essential ingredient” of the healing process, viz., “a physician who really cares about the patient.” “We have reached a point of diminishing returns in the effectiveness of technology to improve the total health of our nation.”  So he opined in 1973, only two years after the first crude CT scanner was demonstrated in London and long before the development of MRIs and PET scans, of angioplasty with stents, and of the broad array of laser- and computer-assisted operations available to contemporary surgeons.[6]  Entire domains of technologically guided intervention – consider technologies of blood and marrow transplantation and medical genetics – barely existed in the early 70s.  Robotics was the stuff of science fiction.

It is easy to sympathize with both Stephens’ critique and his mounting skepticism about the family practice movement’s ability to realize its goals. [7]  He placed the movement on an ideological battleground in which the combatants were of unequal strength and numbers.  There was the family practice counterculture, with the guiding belief that “something genuine and vital occurs in the meeting of doctor and patient” and the pedagogical correlate that  “A preoccupation with a disease instead of a person is detrimental to good medicine.”  And then there were the forces of organized medicine, of medical schools, of turf-protecting internists and surgeons, of hospitals with their “business-industrial models” of healthcare delivery, of specialization and of technology – all bound together by a cultural commitment to science and its  “reductionist hypothesis about the nature of reality.”[8]

Perceptive and humane as Stephen’s critique was, it fell back on the very sort of reductionism he imputed to the opponents of family practice.  Again and again, he juxtaposed “high technology,” in all its allure (and allegedly diminishing returns) with the humanistic goals of patient care.  But are technology and humane patient care really so antipodal?  Technology in and of itself has no ontological status within medicine.  It promotes neither a mechanistic worldview that precludes holistic understanding of patients as people nor a humanizing of the doctor-patient encounter.  In fact, technology is utterly neutral with respect to the values that inform medical practice and shape individual doctor-patient relationships.  Technology does not make (or unmake) the doctor.  It no doubt affects the physician’s choice of specialty, pulling those who lack doctoring instincts or people skills in problem-solving directions (think diagnostic radiology or pathology). But this is hardly a bad thing.

For Stephens, who struggled to formulate an “intellectual” defense of family practice as a new medical discipline, technology was an easy target.  Infusing the nascent behavioral medicine of his day with a liberal dose of sociology and psychoanalysis, he envisioned the family practice movement as a vehicle for recapturing “diseases of the self” through dialogue.[9]  To the extent that technology – whose very existence all but guaranteed its overuse – supplanted  the sensibility (and associated communicational skills) that enabled such dialogue, it was ipso facto part of the problem.

Now there is no question that overreliance on technology, teamed with epistemic assurance that technology invariably determines what is best, can make a mess of things, interpersonally speaking.  But is the problem with the technology or with the human beings who use it?  Technology, however “high” or “low,” is an instrument of diagnosis and treatment, not a signpost of treatment well- or ill-rendered.  Physicians who are not patient-centered will assuredly not find themselves pulled toward doctor-patient dialogue through the tools of their specialty.  But neither will they become less patient-centered on account of these tools.  Physicians who are patient-centered, who enjoy their patients as people, and who comprehend their physicianly responsibilities in broader Hippocratic terms – these physicians will not be rendered less human, less caring, less dialogic, because of the technology they rely on.  On the contrary, their caregiving values, if deeply held, will suffuse the technology and humanize its deployment in patient-centered ways.

When my retinologist examines the back of my eyes with the high-tech tools of his specialty – a retinal camera, a slit lamp, an optical coherence tomography machine – I do not feel that my connection with him is depersonalized or objectified through the instrumentation.  Not in the least.  On the contrary, I perceive the technology as an extension of his person.  I am his patient, I have retinal pathology, and I need his regular reassurance that my condition remains stable and that I can continue with my work.  He is responsive to my anxiety and sees me whenever I need to see him.  The high technology he deploys in evaluating the back of my eye does not come between us; it is a mechanical extension of his physicianly gaze that fortifies his judgment and amplifies the reassurance he is able to provide.  Because he cares for me, his technology cares for me.  It is caring technology because he is a caring physician.

Modern retinology is something of a technological tour de force, but it is no different in kind from other specialties that employ colposcopes, cytoscopes, gastroscopes, proctoscopes, rhinoscopes, and the like to investigate symptoms and make diagnoses.  If the physician who employs the technology is caring, then all such technological invasions, however unpleasant, are caring interventions.  The cardiologist who recommends an invasive procedure like cardiac catheterization is no less caring on that account; such high technology does not distance him from the patient, though it may well enable him to maintain the distance that already exists.  It is a matter of personality, not technology.

I extend this claim to advanced imaging studies as well.  When the need for an MRI is explained in a caring and comprehensible manner, when the explanation is enveloped in a trusting doctor-patient relationship, then the technology, however discomfiting, becomes the physician’s collaborator in care-giving.  This is altogether different from the patient who demands an MRI or the physician who, in the throes of defensive medicine, remarks off-handedly, “Well, we better get an MRI” or simply, “I’m going to order an MRI.”

Medical technology, at its best, is the problem-solving equivalent of a prosthetic limb.  It is an inanimate extender of the physician’s mental “grasp” of the problem at hand. To the extent that technology remains tethered to the physician’s caring sensibility, to his understanding that his diagnostic or treatment-related problem is our existential problem – and that, per Kierkegaard, we are often fraught with fear and trembling on account of it – then we may welcome the embrace of high technology, just as polio patients of the 1930s and 40s with paralyzed intercostal muscles welcomed the literal embrace of the iron lung, which enabled them to breath fully and deeply and without pain.

No doubt, many physicians fail to comprehend their use of technology in this fuzzy, humanistic way – and we are probably the worse for it.  Technology does not structure interpersonal relationships; it is simply there for the using or abusing.  The problem is not that we have too much of it, but that we impute a kind of relational valence to it, as if otherwise caring doctors are pulled away from patient care because technology gets between them and their patients.  With some doctors, this may indeed be the case.  But it is not the press of technology per se that reduces physicians to, in a word Stephens disparagingly uses, “technologists.”  The problem is not in their tools but in themselves.


[1] A. Wilson, The Making of Man-Midwifery: Childbirth in England, 1660-1770 (Cambridge: Harvard, 1995), pp. 97-98, 127-128.

[2] R. D. French, Antivivisection and Medical Science in Victorian Society (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 411.

[3] J. P. Baker, “The Incubator Controversy: Pediatricians and the Origins of Premature Infant Technology in the United States, 1890 to 1910,” Pediatrics, 87:654-662, 1991.

[4] E. H. Thomson, Harvey Cushing: Surgeon, Author, Artist (NY: Schuman, 1950), pp. 244-45.

[5] G. G. Stephens, The Intellectual Basis of Family Practice (Kansas City: Winter, 1982), pp. 62, 56, 83-85, 135-39.

[6] Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 84, 191, 64, 39, 28.

[7] E.g., Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 96, 194.  Cf. his comment on the American College of Surgeon’s effort to keep FPs out of the hospital: “There are issues of political hegemony masquerading as quality of patient care, medicolegal issues disguised as professional qualifications, and economic wolves in the sheepskins of guardians of the public safety” (p. 69).

[8] Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 23, 38, 22.  In 1978, he spoke of the incursion of family practice  into the medical school curriculum of the early 70s as an assault on an entrenched power base:  “The medical education establishment has proved to be a tough opponent, with weapons we never dreamed of. . . .We had to deal with strong emotions, hostility, anger, humiliation. Our very existence was a judgment on the schools, much in the same way that civil rights demonstrators were a judgment on the establishment.  We identified ourselves with all the natural critics of the schools – students, underserved segments of the public, and their elected representatives – to bring pressure to bear on the schools to create academic units devoted to family practice” (pp. 184, 187).

[9] Stephens, Intellectual Basis of Family Practice, pp. 94, 105, 120-23, 192.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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