Palo Alto, Calif.
THE other day as I walked through a wing of my hospital, it occurred to me that Watson, I.B.M.’s supercomputer, would be more at home here than he was on “Jeopardy!” Perhaps it’s good, I thought, that his next challenge, with the aid of the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, will be to learn to diagnose illnesses and treat patients.
On our rounds of the wards, Watson would see lots of other computers with humans glued to them like piglets at a sow’s teats. We might visit a patient with a complex illness — one whose second liver transplant has failed, who has a fungal meningitis and now also has kidney failure and bleeding and is on a score of medications.
Watson might help me digest the sheer volume of data that is in the electronic medical record and might see trends in the data that speak of an impending disaster. And since Watson is constantly trolling the Web, he would perhaps bring to my attention a case report published the previous night in a Swedish journal describing a new interaction between two of the drugs my patient is taking.
Better still, if Watson could harness data from all the patients in our hospital and in every other hospital in America, we might be alerted to mini-epidemics taking shape. For example, Watson might recognize that the kidney failure in our patient is linked to kidney failure in a patient in Buffalo and another in San Antonio; all three patients, he might inform me, were taking a “natural” weight loss supplement that contained a Chinese herb, aristolochia, that has been associated with more than 100 cases of kidney failure.
In short, Watson would be a potent and clever companion as we made our rounds.
But the complaints I hear from patients, family and friends are never about the dearth of technology but about its excesses. My own experience as a patient in an emergency room in another city helped me see this. My nurse would come in periodically to visit the computer work station in my cubicle, her back to me while she clicked and scrolled away. Over her shoulder she said, “On a scale of one to five how is your …?”
The electronic record of my three-hour stay would have looked perfect, showing close monitoring, even though to me as a patient it lacked a human dimension. I don’t fault the nurse, because in my hospital, despite my best intentions, I too am spending too much time in front of the computer: the story of my patient’s many past admissions, the details of surgeries undergone, every consultant’s opinion, every drug given over every encounter, thousands of blood tests and so many CT scans, M.R.I.’s and ultrasound images reside in there.
This computer record creates what I call an “iPatient” — and this iPatient threatens to become the real focus of our attention, while the real patient in the bed often feels neglected, a mere placeholder for the virtual record.
Imaging the body has become so easy (and profitable, too, if you own the machine). When I was an intern some 30 years ago, about three million CT scans were performed annually in the United States; now the number is more like 80 million. Imaging tests are now responsible for half of the overall radiation Americans are exposed to, compared with about 15 percent in 1980.
With that radiation exposure comes increasing risk for cancer, but what worries me even more is that this ease of ordering a scan has caused doctors’ most basic skills in examining the body to atrophy. This loss is palpable when American medical trainees go to hospitals and clinics abroad with few resources: it can be quite humbling to see doctors in Africa and South America detect fluid around patients’ lungs not with X-rays but by percussing the chest with their fingers and listening with their stethoscopes.
Of course, we still teach medical students how to properly examine the body. In dedicated physical diagnosis courses in their first and second years, students learn on trained actors, who give them appropriate stories and responses, how to do a complete exam of the body’s systems (circulatory, respiratory, musculoskeletal and the rest). Faculty members stand by to assess that the required maneuvers are performed correctly.
But all that training can be undone the moment the students hit their clinical years. Then, they discover that the currency on the ward seems to be “throughput” — getting tests ordered and getting results, having procedures like colonoscopies done expeditiously, calling in specialists, arranging discharge. And the engine for all of that, indeed the place where the dialogue between doctors and nurses takes place, is the computer.
The consequence of losing both faith and skill in examining the body is that we miss simple things, and we order more tests and subject people to the dangers of radiation unnecessarily. Just a few weeks ago, I heard of a patient who arrived in an E.R. in extremis with seizures and breathing difficulties. After being stabilized and put on a breathing machine, she was taken for a CT scan of the chest, to rule out blood clots to the lung; but when the radiologist looked at the results, she turned out to have tumors in both breasts, along with the secondary spread of cancer all over the body.
In retrospect, though, her cancer should have been discovered long before the radiologist found it; before the emergency, the patient had been seen several times and at different places, for symptoms that were probably related to the cancer. I got to see the CT scan: the tumor masses in each breast were likely visible to the naked eye — and certainly to the hand. Yet they had never been noted.
Too frequently, I hear of (and in a study we are conducting, I am collecting) stories like that from all across the country. They represent a type of error that stems from not making use of basic bedside skills, not asking the patient to fully disrobe. It is a more subtle kind of error than operating on the wrong limb; indeed, this sort of mistake is not always recognized, and yet the consequences can be grave.
IN my experience, being skilled at examining the body has a salutary effect beyond finding important clues that lead to an early diagnosis. It is a ritual that remains important to the patient. Recently my ward team admitted an elderly woman who had been transferred from her nursing home in the night because of a change in her mental status. A CT of the head and all other tests were determined to be normal; the problem had been dehydration, and she was better, ready to go back. But as our team was about to enter the room, my intern warned me that the patient’s lawyer daughter was unhappy with the plan to return her mother to the nursing home, and was waiting impatiently to see me and contest the transfer.
After introducing myself to the patient and to her daughter, I did a thorough but quick neurologic exam. I put the patient through her paces: mental status, cranial nerves, motor and sensory function, used my reflex hammer and pointed out interesting things along the way to my interns and students. I then said to the daughter that her mother seemed back to normal. To our surprise, the daughter seemed comforted, and now had no objection to her mother’s return to the nursing home.
Later, our team discussed what had just happened. We all felt that the daughter witnessing the examination of the patient, that ritual, was the key to earning both their trusts.
I find that patients from almost any culture have deep expectations of a ritual when a doctor sees them, and they are quick to perceive when he or she gives those procedures short shrift by, say, placing the stethoscope on top of the gown instead of the skin, doing a cursory prod of the belly and wrapping up in 30 seconds. Rituals are about transformation, the crossing of a threshold, and in the case of the bedside exam, the transformation is the cementing of the doctor-patient relationship, a way of saying: “I will see you though this illness. I will be with you through thick and thin.” It is paramount that doctors not forget the importance of this ritual.
An answer that might have been posed on “Jeopardy!” is, “An emergency treatment that is administered by ear.” I wonder if Watson would have known the question (though he will now, cybertroller that he is), which is, “What are words of comfort?”
Abraham Verghese, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is the author of the novel “Cutting for Stone.”