Technological Problems with Medical Treatment
The high cost of new diagnostic and treatment technologies means that they have to be used selectively, and at that point decisions must be made about who should get to use them. In recent years there have been increasing charges of improper use of these new technologies, coupled with increasing discussion of their costs and benefits. Unfortunately, the use of such technology tends to spread indiscriminately and so add indiscriminately to health care costs. Given this situation, there is a need to examine the relevance of new diagnostic and treatment methods, the causes of technological abuse, the ethical aspects of the use of medical technology, and even the relationship between technology and society.
Now, I am the first to confess my infatuation with technology. I am also a very big believer in patient empowerment, which could be the one force strong enough to overcome the corporate lobbyists resisting any positive change. But there are several problems I see with this kind of empowerment with technology. First off, the goal is not to find technologies that simply transform, but ones that move care to a better place. Right now our system is running aground for one reason: we spend too much money. Patient empowerment that improves efficiency of care is good, while empowerment that increases consumption or decreases efficiency is to be avoided if at all possible.
First off, the goal is not to find technologies that simply transform, but ones that move care to a better place. Right now our system is running aground for one reason: we spend too much money. Patient empowerment that improves efficiency of care is good, while empowerment that increases consumption or decreases efficiency is to be avoided if at all possible. The technology mentioned in the article is predominantly data-gathering technology, increasing the amount of information moving from patient to physician. The hope is that this will enable faster and better informed decisions, and perhaps some of it will. But I can see harm coming out of this as well.
Take your electrocardiogram on your smartphone and send it to your doctor. Or to pre-empt the need for a consult, opt for the computer-read version with a rapid text response. Having trouble with your vision? Get the $2 add-on to your smartphone and get your eyes refracted with a text to get your new eyeglasses or contact lenses made. Have a suspicious skin lesion that might be cancer? Just take a picture with your smartphone and you can get a quick text back in minutes with a determination of whether you need to get a biopsy or not. Does your child have an ear infection? Just get the scope attachment to your smartphone and get a 10x magnified high-resolution view of your child’s eardrums and send them for automatic detection of whether antibiotics will be needed.
Doctors have had a very hard time resisting this, as it is in our medical DNA to intervene when we find a problem, but we have caused many problems because of this addiction to intervention. A large number, if not the majority, of ear infections are undiagnosed and clear on their own at home without intervention. If our goal (as it should be) is to spend less money on unnecessary care, we will get to it much faster if we somehow give proper incentive. Our encounter-based payment system stands in the way of any progress in this area. The only way most of us get paid is to see people and deal with problems. This makes doctors reluctant to offer any care outside of this setting, and puts undue pressure on intervention (to justify the encounter to the payors). Until our system puts more value on avoiding unnecessary treatment and keeping people well we will be stuck in this struggle between patients who want to avoid seeing the doctor and doctors who can’t afford to let patients do that.