A few weeks ago I had lunch with two doctors who are currently in a residency training program. In a moment of candor, both of them remarked, “I feel like I’m being trained as a technician.”
This comment struck me as tremendously important (and not just because I am heavily involved in their training and their words highlight my failure as a teacher!). Because if their perception is correct — if we are indeed instilling in future physicians the ethos of the technician — then we had best be prepared for the inevitable results. “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail;” to a technician, every problem looks like a technical problem, one which needs to be solved by a technique or technology. The dizzying upward spiral of health care costs is driven largely by the increasing use of increasingly expensive technologies; training a technician workforce can only exacerbate the problem. The technical bias towards the automatic, unreflective use of technology simply because it exists will lead to more of the inappropriate use of technological interventions that are the bread-and-butter of hospital ethics consultations.
But more importantly, not all problems in medicine are technical problems; some are singularly resistant to simplistic, technical solutions. For some conditions, the doctor is the best drug: his or her human, caring, and compassionate presence, just being with the patient. Yet to the technical mindset, this simply attending to the patient (from which we get the expression “Attending Physician”) is discounted in favor of doing things to patients; and while both the being and the doing are necessary for the practice of good medicine, the standardization, mechanization, and industrialization of medicine in our day has heavily favored the latter at the expense of the former. More often than our technical mindset acknowledges, it is better not to do something to the patient; but this option is not in the purview of the technical mindset. We always feel we must do something, and medical caring often suffers as a result. The central economy of medicine, the physician-patient relationship, is lost in the technical mindset.
The ongoing industrialization of medicine is reflected in and driven by the terms we use to describe doctors. In the May 25th JAMA, the authors of an essay entitled “Dear Provider” wrote of the replacement of the title “clinician” with “provider.” The authors believe that this semantic change could be subliminally altering professional self-concept and behavior, “shifting the clinical encounter from patient-centered to task-oriented. Nowadays, patients are quickly ‘plugged in’ to templated workups; progress notes have become computerized inventories of completed tasks; and when we ask residents on teaching rounds ‘What do you think?’ we often hear ‘I think I want to get an MRI.’ It appears that the time and effort spent by providers packaging patients through the system is displacing most other clinical activities.”
Packaging patients through the system. Sounds like a technician’s handiwork to me. How did we get to this? Do we turn back or go on?