Healthcare industry forgets to care

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Has anyone else noticed that nurses now seem more interested in inputting data into their electronic devices when you talk with them than listening to what’s wrong with you?

That drives me nuts.

The focus has become serving their computers rather than their customers. It makes me want to scream, “I’m a human; I’m sick; I’m paying for this; listen to me!”

I’m not targeting any particular health care organization here, just making a general observation about one of the many tradeoffs our society has unwittingly made in its obsession with adopting the newest technology, regardless of the drawbacks.

A few years ago we started hearing about electronic health records. Believe it had something to do with Obamacare. It was going to be the greatest thing. All your records, from any doctor, right at your fingertips. Now, in reality, it means the people who are supposed to be taking care of you now spend all their time making sure their digital Ts are crossed while they type whatever you’re saying into a machine.

And it still takes an act of Congress to get your medical records.

Chalk up another victory for people who make electronics, another loss for the rest of us. Eventually there are just going to be 10 trillionaires in the world who own all the companies, surrounded by their legions of robot workers, while the remainder of humanity is outside in utter darkness and poverty gnashing our teeth — as we order more junk from Amazon via our smartphones. Such is the state of 21st century America.

I thought for a long time I was the only one who felt this way, but this past weekend I read a thoughtful column in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Arthur Kleinman that reminded me I’m not alone. Dr. Kleinman is a professor at the Harvard Medical School, so he knows his stuff as far as human anatomy and physiology.

But he wrote in the column, entitled “Treating disease is no substitute for caring for the ill,” how his perspective about what really matters between doctors and their patients changed when he found himself on the other side. That happened when he began a years-long journey caring for his wife who had Alzheimer’s disease.

Listen to what he wrote about the health care experience from a patient’s perspective:

“Patients and their families — and the doctors and nurses caring for them — too often cope with long waits, poor communication, the acquired indifference of overworked and stressed-out staff members, the cynicism born of inadequate resources and unrealistic expectations, and the patients’ and loved ones’ bewilderment over how to navigate a chaotic, indifferent and bureaucratic system. This is health care without caregiving.”

Amen, amen and amen.

Anyone who has been sick or had a loved one become ill knows exactly what Dr. Kleinman is describing. It’s the universal experience of every patient who walks into a doctor’s office and is treated like an unnecessary problem that the scrubs-clad employees behind the desk must deal with in order to get you to leave their premises. How can an entire industry operate like that and have its customers keep coming back?

Two reasons:

1. If you’re sick, you’ve got to seek help, and there is usually not a better alternative.

2. There’s a separation between who pays the bills in health care unlike any other field. The insurance is who the provider has to keep happy because they cut the check, or at least most of it, not the sick person.

If you work in health care, don’t get defensive about this column. I know there are good people working in that field who really want to help patients, not just take home a paycheck; I’m not knocking you. Instead, use this to learn more about how patients feel.

And maybe look up from the computer once in awhile and give us a smile or nod or comforting glance. It makes a difference in feeling like you’re actually being cared for rather than being chewed up by health care.  n

Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at csmith@columbianprogress.com or by phone at (601) 736-2611.