- When the stethoscope was invented in 1816, it was a revolutionary change in medicine. What was once an extremely detailed and intimate conversation between patient and provider suddenly had a new instrument separating them. But although this tool could have posed a threat to patient-provider trust turned out to be a boon for diagnostics and care quality.
“The paradigm that came about with the stethoscope was we started to put tools between the patient and the doctor,” explained Jack Stockert, MD, the managing director of strategy and business development at Health2047.
“Imagine before you had the stethoscope, I'd sit and talk to you about the breathing trouble you might have had, what the symptoms you were having were, and I'd try to figure out how to diagnose it. You could imagine that being a very intimate conversation.”
But with the advent of the stethoscope, doctors could suddenly hear for themselves some of the symptoms patients previously could only describe.
“The paradigm of innovation that we've had then over the course of 200 years is the use of technology to better understand what was going on behind the pathophysiology of diseases, and that inherently always creates more distance between us,” Stockert said.
Nevertheless, patient-provider relationships and empathy still defined the healthcare experience, despite the use of the stethoscope.
Healthcare finds itself again in a revolution just as it did with the stethoscope, and the numerous other innovations that have happened in a little over 200 years, Stockert said in an interview.
Technology is evolving at a huge pace, and it’s calling into question the role of the patient-provider relationship and clinician empathy that has long defined the healthcare profession.
“There's this conflict that was created as we've advanced what we're able to do technologically. We can gather new information and data about what's actually driving certain health outcomes that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that health care by its nature has always been hyper regional,” Stockert said.
Historically, doctors and patients ran into each other all around town. Doctors could see their patients at church or the shopping center and then again a few days later in the clinic. This created an understanding of the dynamics at play in a patient’s life. Even if a doctor was seeing 20 patients in a day, she knew the social context in which those patients lived.
“As we've scaled the abilities of technology, and whether that be telemedicine or digital health and asynchronous engagement, you run the risk of potentially losing that empathy,” Stocker said.
Healthcare should not be exclusively technology driven, although new and innovative tools do improve care. These tools should be taken in stride with the other hallmarks of patient-centered care that have long been the bedrock of medicine.
That will require more than collecting data on the patient; providers need to understand that data and integrate it into their patient-provider relationships, Stockert said.
“It's important to focus on how we actually understand what the patient is encountering and how we better use technology to understand that question, and then help communicate more effectively with them,” he explained.
Specifically, technology is helping to connect doctors and patients in ways they have never been connected before. Telehealth and other remote patient monitoring tools make it so doctors and patients perhaps don’t live hyper-locally. But that doesn’t mean providers shouldn’t know their patients that way.
“Whether that is across boundaries and distances that didn't exist before in health care, we can't lose that sort of hyper regional nature of what care is,” Stockert stated. “Because people live and utilize food, grocery, resources around where they live, and that is all part of the kind of ecosystem of their health. And if we don't understand that effectively, and we don't help them navigate that effectively, then we aren't doing as good of a job as we could as care providers.”
At the center of these efforts will be the human touch of healthcare. Although the industry is being infiltrated with technologies that can do seemingly anything, Stockert emphasized that humans still operate the industry.
“Technology and all the systems and tools that are developed are just that – they're tools,” he asserted. “And tools are best utilized by individuals or people. So where I struggle is where we're perhaps advocating for the replacement of individuals.”
As healthcare continues to advance and providers utilize more technologies that can connect them with patients – because these technologies do have the ability to do that – it is important to still put the human relationship first.
Just like the stethoscope, which did indeed improve care, these technologies need to be manned by a human with empathy and the capacity to build relationships.
“If we don't shift from the paradigm, both as physicians and as professionals understanding how patients consume health care, then we won't quite get there,” Stockert concluded. “The patient relationships with technology should be encouraged. And I think physicians' interactions with technology should be encouraged, but we still think have a ways to go as we think about how best to use tools to foster and improve a much healthier and more trusted interaction back to that trust piece between the doctor and the patient.”