Medicine’s New Tools Can’t Replace Compassion

By Ralph Snyderman


Genomics, digital technologies, telemedicine, avatars, precision medicine and now artificial intelligence are set to lead to a transformation in health care. Tools are being created that will accurately predict an individual’s risk of disease, thereby enabling the development of plans to allow people to mitigate their risk. If disease does occur, it will be treated precisely with targeted therapies. And mobile health technologies will bring care directly to patients via their smart phones, allowing care to be delivered anytime, anyplace.

The possibilities are breathtaking, but there’s another side to this story made obvious by a recent article in The New York Times. A hospitalized man and his family were dismayed to learn that further treatments for the patient were hopeless and that he had little time to live. A wrenching message under any circumstance, but having it delivered by a physician on video made it all the more unbearable and, understandably, the patient and the family were greatly distressed. As the patient’s wife said, “I just don’t think that critically ill patients should see a screen. It should be a human being with compassion.”

There’s an adage that virtually all physicians learn while training: “To cure when possible, to care always.” Yet the physician’s ability to deliver care with compassion has become more and more limited by an increasingly technical and bureaucratic delivery system that leaves little time for human interaction. Technology has clearly transformed the power of medicine to diagnose and treat disease more precisely, but the patient’s experience described in the article epitomizes the need for the medical profession to guard against the benefits of technology coming at the expense of caring and compassion. The very foundation of medicine is built on compassion — the desire to relieve the suffering of others.

By Ralph Snyderman, MD – featured in The News & Observer