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Verghese: However Digitized, Doctoring Must Remain Hands-On

High on nytimes.com's most-emailed list today is a typically beautiful piece by the author and doctor Abraham Verghese, lamenting the loss of bedside examination skills as medicine becomes ever more computerized.

This computer record creates what I call an “iPatient” — and this iPatient threatens to become the real focus of our attention, while the real patient in the bed often feels neglected, a mere placeholder for the virtual record.

Imaging the body has become so easy (and profitable, too, if you own the machine). When I was an intern some 30 years ago, about three million CT scans were performed annually in the United States; now the number is more like 80 million. Imaging tests are now responsible for half of the overall radiation Americans are exposed to, compared with about 15 percent in 1980.

With that radiation exposure comes increasing risk for cancer, but what worries me even more is that this ease of ordering a scan has caused doctors’ most basic skills in examining the body to atrophy.

Verghese says he's collecting stories from around the country of medical errors that stem from failing to use basic bedside techniques.

He concludes:

I find that patients from almost any culture have deep expectations of a ritual when a doctor sees them, and they are quick to perceive when he or she gives those procedures short shrift by, say, placing the stethoscope on top of the gown instead of the skin, doing a cursory prod of the belly and wrapping up in 30 seconds. Rituals are about transformation, the crossing of a threshold, and in the case of the bedside exam, the transformation is the cementing of the doctor-patient relationship, a way of saying: “I will see you through this illness. I will be with you through thick and thin.” It is paramount that doctors not forget the importance of this ritual.

An answer that might have been posed on “Jeopardy!” is, “An emergency treatment that is administered by ear.” I wonder if Watson would have known the question (though he will now, cybertroller that he is), which is, “What are words of comfort?”

This program aired on February 28, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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