The other day my 20 year-old son ask me, “What has been the greatest invention in your lifetime?” I thought for a few moments and then said with confidence, the Internet. Certainly there have been countless other technical and scientific advances over the last 60 years, but I would argue that none have had the impact on everyone that we’ve seen with the invention of the World Wide Web. It has revolutionized communication and empowered everyone with a wealth of information, available at the click of a mouse. One unfortunate side effect is that we now have a bunch of unemployed encyclopedia salesmen.
The digital revolution has certainly infiltrated the medical community and has begun to change the way many physicians practice. Now we routinely communicate with each other and with patients via e-mail. We can access hospital records and keep up with the latest advances in medicine from around the world, all from a laptop, iPad or even a smart phone with a high speed Internet connection.
Patients are also well connected, using the Internet for everything from learning about a diagnosis or treatment to investigating the credentials of their doctor. It is rare that I see a patient who hasn’t done both, and I applaud that effort. Taking personal responsibility empowers individuals to act on their own behalf, and better informed patients are more likely to understand and process all the information they need to make appropriate decisions about their health.
However, the Internet should come with a “user-beware” warning label. Anybody can write anything they want and publish it on the web. Most sites, like most people, are legitimate and offer accurate and honest information. Some are more biased, while others go well beyond bias, offering advice that usually starts with a phrase like “things your doctor doesn’t want you to know.” You can bet they are just trying to sell you a 3 months supply of vitamins or some exotic juice that “promises” to improve your health regardless of your problem.
Despite these potential pitfalls, the Internet promises to continue to revolutionize healthcare. In the near future “virtual doctor visits” will become common, employing video conferencing software like Skype. Technology already exists that allows a physician to check your pulse rate and listen to your heart online. Its not yet clear exactly how we’ll be able to do a virtual abdominal exam, but hey, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.
Perhaps the most valuable use of the Internet in healthcare will be the creation of individual health records. Most of us have a difficult time recalling the specifics of previous tests or procedures we’ve had, as well as the list of medications we take. For any physician, anywhere, to have immediate access to all your current health information will be a huge step forward in improving the overall quality of care and reducing the cost. Having access to your data could all but eliminate redundant testing, shorten the time to appropriate treatment, and help avoid adverse drug interactions; all without you having to recall exactly when you got your last tetanus shot.
But before online health records can become a reality they must first be made absolutely secure to prevent anyone not directly involved in your care from accessing sensitive, personal information. This is the easy part. The hard part is finding a way for all the various electronic record systems that already exist to share information. Managing data across different platforms presents a logistical nightmare. And, since hospitals and physicians have already invested billions of dollars in various proprietary systems it will be a while before we have one that allows us to simply “plug and play” your health information wherever you happen to seek care.
While all this sounds very exciting and holds great promise in the coming years, it is important to recognize that healthcare is still the most personal of all services. Healing involves more than just an accurate diagnosis and the right prescription. The key word is still “care” which includes a human touch, compassion, empathy, kindness and other emotions that neither a computer nor a robot can provide. So for the foreseeable future the best medicine is still practiced face to face, one doctor, and one patient at a time.
This piece appeared in the August 2011 edition of Society Life Magazine
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