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The Value of Technology Serving the Art of Care

by Darren J. Sommer DO, MBA, MPH

I have been to many digital healthcare conferences, and recently attended one that was expected to set the bar for the telemedicine industry. As a physician whose entire practice is digitally based, I had been looking forward to this event for quite a while, and figured that attending would give me the best opportunity to learn about the latest and greatest ways to connect with my remote patients. But I could not have been more disappointed.

Although the event should have offered a look at the future of telemedicine’s role in augmenting relationships via digital healthcare solutions, it could have been summed up by the theme, “Technology first, personalized care last.” The conference felt like a congregation for the digitally depressed and the vendors in the exhibit hall were as equally disappointing. Despite the presence of hundreds of exhibitors, you could have seen the entire show by visiting a handful of vendors focused on one of four functionalities: carts, kiosks, platforms and robots. It seems that most vendors on the technology side of healthcare still hyper-focus on the technology and do not understand the heart of the physician and our relationship with patients.

The truth is that physicians need little from the technology side to provide exceptional care to their patients. Primary care physicians could perform a significant portion of their trade with just candlelight, a pen, paper, a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff. The decision to add additional technologies to a medical practice should be based on the value they provide relative to the costs. Of course, office space, electricity, climate control and exam furniture are a given, but when we begin to consider adding in digital instruments, video systems or electronic health records (EHRs), that value may not always be as clear.

When I invest in a new digital healthcare tool, I first decide whether it improves my ability to promote better and long-lasting relationships with my patients, which I believe is the most important role for any physician. If patients do not trust their doctor, they will never believe in that doctor’s ability to treat them, regardless of the clinician’s skills. What if a new piece of technology were to compromise that trust or relationship? That’s why we have to be very sensitive when choosing to add a new digital device to a practice.

A physician should consider whether a new device will foster dialogue and interactions — or whether it will further distract the physician from an already hectic practice. Ideally, a piece of technology within a practice will do two things: 1. Add value to the clinical encounter; 2. Remain invisible. When this is achieved, I refer to this as “technological transparency.” The lack of technological transparency was the inherent failure of the aforementioned telemedicine conference. Instead of focusing on the patient-physician relationship and the clinical value of devices, the conference was too concerned with “gadgets.” The need to allow technology to foster relationships was overlooked.

If you happen to use athenahealth’s EHR, you’ve experienced technology that facilitates the concept of technological transparency. Think about technological transparency, and the “invisibility” of the technology medium, as it might apply to a great work of art. Nobody stands in an art gallery admiring a famous painting and thinking, “Hmm, I wonder what kind of canvas the artist used.” No, the observer appreciates and recognizes the value of the techniques, colors and feelings the artist communicated. To me, healthcare is no different. A physician is an artist that blends the knowledge of science, benefits of technology and bonds of compassion to treat every patient as a work of art.

The mark of a truly exceptional piece of medical technology is one the patient never knows played a role in their care. The greatest compliment I can receive from a patient in my practice is how great they are being cared for, not how great our digital healthcare platform is.

I would love to walk the floor of a telemedicine tradeshow in the future and talk with vendors about how their innovations fade into the background and allow me to build better relationships with my patients. Until then, I will continue to explore new ways to leverage existing technologies — and ensure they never interfere with my ability to provide exceptional care.

Darren is the Chief Medical Officer for the Optimized Care Network (OCN) and an athenahealth client. The OCN is a state of the art digital medical practice that leverages technology to connect life-size 3D physicians with patients that are not located in the same room.

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