Empathy and the Physical Exam Remain Essential Components of Medicine

Quartz’s “Prescription AI” series aims to explore the promise of artificial intelligence and machine learning as “an integral part of every aspect of health care, from diagnosis to treatment to end-of-life care.” In a recent article, “Doctors are known for their poor bedside manner. Robots might be the answer,” Quartz says that while machine-learning technology is becoming more “pervasive in the health system,” empathy may be becoming obsolete… even though “it’s one of the reasons why people trust doctors.”

Quartz suggests that the solution lies in physician training with a refocus on empathy, particularly in medical schools. Stanford Medicine 25’s Abraham Verghese supports this notion, calling out a system that emphasizes technical skills and, consequently, has taken the human connection out of medicine. As he stated in a recent interview, many medical students begin their journey craving patient interaction only to be stationed at a computer a majority of the time.

We wholeheartedly believe that learning to connect with patients at the bedside and developing physical examination skills are essential components of physician training and the practice of medicine. As the Quartz article says, “Empathic care demonstrably improves patient satisfaction, leads to better patient outcomes and lowers the risk for errors and malpractice suits. It also helps decrease the risks of physician burnout.” These benefits are not to be ignored, and they cannot be gained if the dynamic between technology and the human touch remains out of balance, a scenario described by Quartz as the risk that “the cold, hard, scientific part” can “take over.”

The best results will come from a system where medical technology complements and enhances what physicians bring to the bedside: not only empathy, but also the physical exam. There are still diagnoses that can only be made through bedside medicine, a skill set that – as Quartz says – “can still only be implemented by another human… Medicine is, and has always been, an endeavor of two parts.”

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