Balancing Technology and Human Connection in Patient Care

Abraham Verghese demonstrates physical exam to Stanford 25 Symposium attendees. Photo by Steve Fisch.

As the broad-reaching capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) gain momentum, there is much discussion about how the technology will shape our world. Within the medical field, we see enormous potential for AI to advance human health. However, as we look forward to this progress, we also believe it's more important than ever to preserve the physical exam and humanistic aspects of medicine. Afterall, a machine cannot offer a shoulder to cry on, a warm hand to hold or words of comfort during a life-altering diagnosis. 

The Value of the Doctor’s Touch

At Stanford Medicine 25, we have long discussed the delicate interplay between human touch and technology in medicine. Our own Abraham Verghese, M.D., who is a passionate advocate for the physical exam, has underscored the pitfalls of focusing on what he refers to as the “iPatient”—the virtual representation of the patient based on lab tests and imaging.

While this technology is undoubtedly valuable, it cannot replace the act of physically laying hands on a patient. Verghese best captures this sentiment in his 2011 TED Talk, “A Doctor’s Touch.” “I am not a luddite,” he explains. “I teach at Stanford. I’m a physician practicing with cutting-edge technology. But I’d like to make the case to you that when we shortcut the physical exam, when we lean towards ordering tests instead of talking to and examining the patient, we not only overlook simple diagnoses that can be diagnosed at a treatable, early stage, but we’re losing much more than that. We’re losing a ritual that I believe is transformative, transcendent and is at the heart of the physician-patient relationship.” We find that his words ring true, especially today!

How AI Can Support Bedside Medicine

As we move forward, our hope is that we can foster a culture in medicine that balances hands-on patient interactions with the many benefits offered by AI and other technology.

In fact, our blog post from 2018 examines “how AI can complement – not compete with –physicians’ diagnostic skills.” Rather than viewing AI as a tool that could substitute the work of clinicians, we are hopeful that AI can allow us to spend more time interacting with our patients. “By bringing added diagnostic capabilities to the bedside, AI and other technology, like the latest generation of point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS), are helping physicians remain at the bedside, instead of being pulled away from it,” the post explains.

We look forward to watching AI advancements unfold as we find new ways to enrich our time with patients!

Subscribe to our mailing list