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Changing technology affects patients

During the mid-1970s when accidents occurred on Interstate 75 near my hometown in Michigan, Dr. O’Neil would respond.

As the only local physician, the doctor was in demand. Tales of emergency medicine provided in pajamas during overnight hours still circulate.

The technology used to help provide this health care? I’m guessing a few rotary-dialed phone calls and perhaps a “cutting-edge” facsimile machine. As evidenced by the legend of the midnight highway doctor – outcomes of this “low-tech” health care seem to have been of high quality.

Fast forward to today. I’m currently aware of two friends receiving health care – “Jack” on an outpatient basis for an acute, non-emergency condition, and “Jill” on an inpatient basis for traumatic, life-threatening injuries. While these fictitious names are lifted from one particular nursery rhyme, the stories – specifically, the experience of Jack and Jill with health technology – couldn’t be more different.

Let’s start with Jill. For the last two weeks, my friend has been attached to equipment that is remarkable. Without getting too “techie,” let me just say that I think I first saw these machines in the film “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke Skywalker was being treated for injuries incurred on the ice-planet Hoth. The machines helping Jill heal are totally out of this world, and I’m grateful that her prognosis is improving every day. In this case, technology has made a tremendous positive impact.

Jack, on the other hand, does not seem to be faring as well with health technology. He reported that his doctor recently “wrote” him a prescription on a computer. Jack also requested a paper version so that he could shop for the most affordable option to fill the prescription. The physician declined the request, telling Jack that it would be easier for him to just press a button and send the prescription electronically to the pharmacy. Before my friend could respond, the button was pushed and the prescription sent through cyberspace. Jack was bummed; so much so that he spent the next few weeks tracking down the elusive paper prescription.

For me, these two accounts illustrate the importance of finding balance between health technology and needs of patients. When we find this balance, lives are improved and can even be saved. When we don’t, lives can become overcomplicated and the experience of care can become needlessly frustrating.

Professional responsibility suggests that health care provides for the needs of patients. As our technological capacities continue to expand, tuning in to each individual patient will become increasingly important. In Jill’s case, the critical-care environment seems to have driven a highly focused response to need as reflected by the care provided. This fine-tuned attention to the patient has made the difference. Not so much in Jack’s case.

I think it’s important to remain mindful of the common theme from our legendary stories of health care – from the interstate 30 years ago to the Trauma Unit today – tuning in to the specific needs of patients ensures we’re better equipped to provide quality care, no matter what technology we use.

Mark White is the director of quality for Axis Health System. Reach him at mwhite@axishealthsystem.org or 335-2217.