Simple Medicine

A recent article in the Sunday New York Times reported about a school district in Arizona that has sunk 33 million dollars into technology in the last six years. The idea was to modernize every classroom with the latest computer technology, putting every student on the fast track to academic brilliance.

But the results so far have been underwhelming. Though every six year old now has a laptop and can whip up a power point presentation on Shakespeare, basic reading, writing, and math skills have stagnated, and teachers have not received a raise since 2005. The obvious point is that gadgets don’t necessarily improve learning, and perhaps simple human interaction between kids and creative, committed teachers could have better results.

When I graduated from Chinese medical school 20 years ago, I was surprised to discover a software program that recommended treatment plans, herbal prescriptions and point combinations, based on your input of the patient’s signs and symptoms.  I was shocked. Wasn’t this what I had just gone through four rigorous years of training to be able to do? What was the patient seeing me for if all of this could be done with a computer program?

In Western medicine, the physical exam is almost a lost art. Instead, doctors order lab tests to determine the patient’s diagnosis. Indeed, even among Chinese medical practitioners, it’s very common to order up a battery of functional lab tests to determine such things as digestive system health, adrenal function, etc. I love these tools and make ample use of them myself. I’m all for accuracy in diagnosis, and happy to have assistance from technology to help my patients get better. But often I wonder if we, like our western medical counterparts and that Arizona school district, have forgotten about the power of simple human interaction.

There is a magical exchange that takes place between a caring doctor and a patient, or a dedicated teacher and a student. It’s not so much a transmission of information, or a cure. It’s more a recognition. It says, “ah yes, we are both human; let’s walk a little way together. Let’s keep each other company for a while on this journey.” Simple, and powerful.

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