The Rise of Desktop Medicine — Wrong Terminology, But Right Thing to Do

A recent NY Times article, the Rise of Desktop Medicine, highlighted the use of technology in accessing information (desktop medicine) and how doctors were spending less time with patients (bedside medicine).  Many doctors were concerned about the change and longed for the old days.  Yet, the reality is that with more medical knowledge, doctors must retrieve information from clinical trials, calculate risk of heart attack or osteoporosis, rather than rely on intuition, particularly when data exists.

My biggest problem with this article really was with the term desktop medicine.  I don’t like it.  Certainly over the past few decades, our understanding of certain illnesses has become more precise, the interventions and treatments more clear, and therapies more evidence based (precision medicine).  Other illnesses, however, still continue to be more challenging and determining the correct course of action less clear (cognitive or intuitive medicine). 

Precision medicine, a term used by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, has simply occurred at the same time computers and the ability to rapidly access information developed.  Imagine if medical science knowledge had evolved but that there was no infrastructure or technology available to retrieve information like clinical trial outcomes quickly.  Doctors would still be treating patients based on intuition rather than science completely oblivious to the latest knowledge.  Research has shown it takes 17 years before outcomes from research studies become commonly practiced in the community.

No desktop medicine isn’t the right term to describe the phenomenon in medicine.  It implies doctors are simply indentured servants to computers and technology.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Generations ago, doctors had few tools and treatments.  When people developed pneumonia, we could do nothing but wait and hope because antibiotics were not discovered yet.  We simply comforted individuals and families.  Many people died.

Today we have more tools, more treatments, and a better understanding of many, but not all illnesses.  To say this additional knowledge and the ability to retrieve this information somehow erodes the doctor patient relationship is incorrect.  We can still be caring and use our technology to access information to make the care of the patient in front of us more precise and personalized than ever before.

No, the terms desktop medicine and bedside medicine are incorrect because they provide the wrong type of connotation.  The former term implies cold and impersonal.  The latter term suggests humanity and comfort.  Better terms with less emotional attachment would be precision medicine and intuitive or cognitive medicine.

I’m a big fan of the art of medicine and bedside manner.   I also love how my computer allows me to make care more convenient and more personal. 

The next generation of doctors must be experts at both bedside manner and using the vast knowledge of medical science to make care precise in areas we have good understanding.  For illnesses where we don’t, we still do what we did generations ago, comfort and heal. 

No computer will ever replace that.

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