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Data vs. Doctors

This post was written by Perrie Briskin.

This week in TechCrunch, Silicon Valley mogul and Sun Micosystems founder Vinod Khosla wrote “Do We Need Doctors or Algorithms?,” a compelling piece about healthcare and data. More specifically, as our ability to collect and analyze data improves with technology, can algorithms, or as he calls it, “Dr. A,” replace doctors?

Having computers armed with data taking the place of doctors is a far-off, if not totally implausible, reality. But it’s interesting to think about the extreme because, chances are, healthcare is going to fall somewhere in between. While data and technology may never replace a human being, they will likely evolve into essential tools for every patient and provider.

Asthmapolis uses inhalers equipped with GPS to track, manage, and research asthma.

The impact of data and technology on healthcare is already evident. Melinda Gates talked recently about how data informs everything that The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does. Companies like Massive Health and Asthmapolis are founded on creating innovative ways to collect and interpret large amounts of data. By making data more accessible, they hope to impact individual behavior and public health surveillance.

Technology can also help in places like Africa, India, and China, to name a few, where there is a dearth of primary care physicians. Are 10+ years of training needed to be a primary care provider? No, and technology can help lower the learning curve in places that need it most.

A large piece of this puzzle is plain language. One of Khosla’s more interesting suggestions in the TechCrunch piece was to create a digital translation tool that translates plain language terms for symptoms like “I feel itchy” into doctor-speak. This allows electronic health records (EHRs) to better track patients’ symptoms over time and could potentially allow the user to look up ailments outside of WebMD.

Withings’ Blood Pressure Monitor allows users to measure their blood pressure on their own with an iPhone.

As patients get access to more information, plain language becomes a necessity. The use of personal health tracking tools is rising, and patients need to understand the data that’s coming at them. All this technology may free up providers, allowing them to talk more, in plain language, with their patients. No longer will they have to spend the extra minutes to measure blood pressure, because their patient’s Withings Blood Pressure Monitor did it for them that morning.

This may be verging on too optimistic, but maybe technology will not replace physicians but instead allow and encourage them to be even more present with their patients. At the moment, that’s not happening. Our excitement over data and technology has had us forgetting the importance of a “doctor’s touch,” as physician and writer Abraham Verghese points out in his brilliant TED talk.

The truth is, when you’re sick, data won’t hold your hand, bring you a cold compress, or look you in the eye and tell you it’s going to be alright. There is a positive relationship between human interaction, perception, and health that data may never be able to fully track. As long as we don’t forget that, compute away.


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