MedCity Influencers, Health Tech

At the height of digital wellness, are we missing the human touch?

Medicine will never progress without technology—there’s no denying that. But for the foreseeable future, human interaction remains an instrumental part of the healthcare experience.

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The pandemic has cast a spotlight on healthcare’s technological shortcomings, accelerating the industry’s historically slow march toward digitization. Confronted with lockdowns and social-distancing mandates, providers have turned to digital communication and data management, e-visits, and telehealth to continue serving patients. In response, enterprising firms of all shapes and sizes—from tech giants to health-app startups—are scrambling to meet this need with secure, efficient, and reliable technology aimed at streamlining remote care.

For those working on the health IT side of things, this demand surge for digital healthcare feels like the dawning of a new era. It’s incredibly exciting to see providers, payers, and patients beginning to embrace digital innovation and experience the positive impact these technologies have on care delivery. Amid all this excitement, however, I find myself feeling leery of how quickly the industry is shifting toward digitization.

I think back to a recent experience my son and I had at a doctor’s office. When we entered the waiting room, we exchanged quick, nervous glances with the other patients in the space before checking in online. Our only human interaction was a brief conversation with the desk attendant—through a plexiglass divider.

While I know that touchless experiences are all the rage (and for good reason), I wonder: if we’re not careful about our migration toward digital care, will human touch and face-to-face interactions become a thing of the past? And will healthcare lose empathy if it swings too far digitally?

There is power in human touch.
Touch is fundamental to the human experience. It forges personal connections, decodes human emotion, and—from a healthcare perspective—promotes trust and healing.

In his book titled, “In the Hands of Doctors: Touch and Trust in Medical Care,” historian Paul Stepansky explores how American medicine has changed since the 19th century, focusing on the role of touch in building trust between doctors and patients. In it he writes, “Medicine then was all about touching, and patients welcomed their touch. It was integral to doctoring, and partly because physicians were part of the community, medicine was about laying hands.”

Using touch as a powerful healing tool is a practice that spans back even further than what Stepansky documented in his book. According to research published in the International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine, the traditional shamans of the North East Australian rainforest have used touch and talk to heal mental and physical disorders for thousands of years. To the aboriginals, touch and human interaction were key to learning secret information about the body, reliably guiding them to the root of the problem.

Modern-day research corroborates these time-tested beliefs. Researchers have published countless studies over the past decade championing the power of touch and empathy in medicine by showing that:

Touch is something we crave on a primal level, and it has proven to be immensely powerful when comforting, diagnosing, and treating patients. But in our rush to digitize every aspect of the healthcare journey, are we leaving this elemental practice behind?

Technology will never replace human interaction
Effective, modern medicine cannot survive without technology. As someone who works for a rehab therapy software company, I fully understand the impact EMRs, mobile apps, telehealth, and general treatment technologies have on improving patient care and outcomes. Regardless of how intuitive the software—or how advanced the technology—patients will always highly value and seek out human touch because:

  1. They remain wary of AI and other nuanced technologies. According to a recent Harvard Business Review report, “patients believe that their medical needs are unique and cannot be adequately addressed by algorithms.” Patient experiences aren’t meant to be 100% digital. And despite the accuracy of computers, humans prefer to seek care from other human beings.
  2. They have emotional needs. And as such, life-altering diagnoses and unforeseen outcomes are best delivered by a living, breathing, feeling individual who can fully understand and address these needs.
  3. Physical examinations are reassuring and restorative. Abraham Verghese, a physician, author, and Professor for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at Stanford University has spoken extensively about the importance of this rudimentary practice, stating that “when [physicians] shortcut the physical exam, when [they] lean towards ordering tests instead of talking to and examining the patient, [they] not only overlook simple diagnoses…[they’re] losing a ritual that I believe is transformative, transcendent, and is at the heart of the patient-physician relationship.”

We must ask ourselves how we can preserve touch in health care

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a clear-cut solution to this question yet. At best, technology helps providers reach more patients, reduces administrative burden, and expands access to treatment. At worst, it creates a physical barrier between provider and patient, extinguishing empathy and damaging patient rapport. All things considered, technology’s sole constant is that it will only be as good as the people who created and are using it.

So, from a health technologist’s perspective, I’ll offer up the following considerations for developing digital health tools in the years to come:

  • Focus on the problems rather than the potential solutions
     It’s easy to get distracted by the sheer number of possible solutions your technology can provide. Instead, prioritize your focus by tackling the problems that will deliver the biggest impact once solved. Then, commit your energy to understanding the nuances of those problems. This mindset keeps patient needs front and center, steering you away from feature-rich products that deliver little benefit.
  • Be mindful of unintended consequences. Digital patient intakes and touchless experiences were created for all the right reasons. Yet, however well-intentioned they may be, digital tools always run the risk of producing unintended consequences. As such, physicians and health technologists must work together to understand what problems might occur (e.g., misdiagnoses, overlooked symptoms, missed chances to develop a rapport with patients) if technology is left unchecked.

Medicine will never progress without technology—there’s no denying that. But for the foreseeable future, human interaction remains an instrumental part of the healthcare experience. So, moving forward, healthcare professionals must find a way to blend the sophistication of technology with the power of touch in order to continue improving patient experiences, care, and outcomes.

Photo: diego_cervo, Getty Images




Russell Olsen joined Phoenix-based WebPT as Vice President of Innovation and Product Management in 2017. He leads category design, product management, user experience and product discovery—as well as applying disruptive innovation approaches to accelerate growth while solving customer and market problems. Russell brings with him deep experience in healthcare and growth companies, and has delivered innovations impacting millions of lives over the course of his 15-year career.

Prior to WebPT, Russell led product teams at other healthcare organizations. His roles included Vice President of Product and Innovation at Phytel, an IBM company, and Offering leader at IBM Watson Health, where he led the creation of provider-led population health tools and the integration of Watson and machine learning into several offering portfolios. At IBM he also led the development and launch of Watson Care Manager, helping care managers improve the lives of chronically ill individuals across the globe. Additionally, he led teams at MDdatacor (now Symphony Technology Group), uncovering new ways to use natural language processing to improve the payer driven quality programs.

Russell graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in electronics and information technology. He also received a certificate in “Disruptive Strategy” from Harvard Business School in 2017.

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