Medical Technology Should Keep Patient in Mind

Neil Skolnik, MD, and Christopher Notte, MD

November 23, 2021

On this occasion of writing our last of a decade of tech columns, we want to take the time to emphasize that our collective excitement about medical technology should never eclipse the reason for which it is created: to facilitate high-quality care.

Dr Christopher Notte

Indeed, science and technology provide opportunities to improve outcomes in ways not even imagined 100 years ago, yet we must acknowledge that technology also threatens to erect barriers between us and our patients. We can be easily tempted to confuse new care delivery tools with the actual care itself.

Threats to the Physician-Patient Relationship

Medical history provides many examples of how our zeal to innovate can have untoward consequences to the physician-patient relationship.

Dr Neil Skolnik

In the late 1800s, for example, to convey a sense of science, purity of intent, and trust, the medical community began wearing white coats. Those white coats have been discussed as creating emotional distance between physicians and their patients.1

Even when we in the medical community are slow and reluctant to change, the external forces propelling us forward often seem unstoppable; kinetic aspirations to innovate electronic information systems and new applications seem suddenly to revolutionize care delivery when we least expect it. The rapidity of change in technology can sometimes be dizzying but can at the same time can occur so swiftly we don't even notice it.

After René Laennec invented the stethoscope in the early 1800s, clinicians no longer needed to physically lean in and place an ear directly onto patients to hear their hearts beating. This created a distance from patients that was still lamented 50 years later, when a professor of medicine is reported to have said, "he that hath ears to hear, let him use his ears and not a stethoscope." Still, while the stethoscope has literally distanced us from patients, it is such an important tool that we no longer think about this distancing. We have adapted over time to remain close to our patients, to sincerely listen to their thoughts and reassure them that we hear them without the need to feel our ears on their chests.

Francis Peabody, the eminent Harvard physician, wrote an essay in 1927 titled, "The Care of the Patient." At the end of the first paragraph, he states: "The most common criticism made at present by older practitioners is that young graduates ... are too "scientific" and do not know how to take care of patients." He goes on to say that "one of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient."2

We agree with Peabody. As we embrace science and technology that can change health outcomes, our patients' needs to feel understood and cared for will not diminish. Instead, that need will continue to be an important aspect of our struggle and joy in providing holistic, humane, competent care into the future.

Twenty-first century physicians have access to an ever-growing trove of data, yet our ability to truly know our patients seems somehow less accessible. Home health devices have begun to provide a flow of information about parameters, ranging from continuous glucose readings to home blood pressures, weights, and inspiratory flow readings. These data can provide much more accurate insight into patients than what we can glean from one point in time during an office visit. Yet we need to remember that behind the data are people with dreams and desires, not just table entries in an electronic health record.

In 1923, the German philosopher Martin Buber published the book for which he is best known, "I and Thou." In that book, Buber says that there are two ways we can approach relationships: "I-Thou" or "I-It." In I-It relationships, we view the other person as an "it" to be used to accomplish a purpose, or to be experienced without his or her full involvement. In an I-Thou relationship, we appreciate the other people for all their complexity, in their full humanness. We must consciously remind ourselves amid the rush of technology that there are real people behind those data. We must acknowledge and approach each person as a unique individual who has dreams, goals, fears, and wishes that may be different from ours but to which we can still relate.

"From the Beating End of the Stethoscope"

John Ciardi, an American poet, said the following in a poem titled, "Lines From the Beating End of the Stethoscope":

I speak, as I say, the patient's point of view.

But, given time, doctors are patients, too.

And there's our bond: beyond anatomy,

Or in it, through it, to the mystery

Medicine takes the pulse of and lets go

Forever unexplained. It's art, we know,

Not science at the heart. Doctor be whole,

I won't insist the patient is a soul,

But he's a something, possibly laughable,

Or possibly sublime, but not quite graphable.

Not quite containable on a bed chart.

Where science touches man it turns to art.3

This poem is a reminder of the subtle needs of patients during their encounters with doctors, especially around many of the most important decisions and events in their lives. Patients' needs are varied, complex, difficult to discern, and not able to be fully explained or understood through math and science.

Einstein warned us that the modern age would be characterized by a perfection of means and a confusion of goals.4 As clinicians, we should strive to clarify and align our goals with those of our patients, providing care that is real, compassionate, and personal, not just an optimized means to achieve standardized metrics. While technology can assist us in this pursuit, we'll need be careful that our enchantment with innovation does not cloud our actual goal: truly caring for our patients.

Notte is a family physician and chief medical officer of Abington (Pa.) Hospital–Jefferson Health. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Hospital–Jefferson Health. They have no conflicts related to the content of this piece.


1. Jones VA. The white coat: Why not follow suit? JAMA. 1999;281(5):478. doi: 10.1001/jama.281.5.478-JMS0203-5-1

2. Peabody, Francis (1927). "The care of the patient." JAMA. 88(12):877-82. doi: 10.1001/jama.1927.02680380001001.

3. Ciardi, John. Lines from the Beating End of the Stethoscope. Saturday Review, Nov. 18, 1968.

4. Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years, 1950.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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