Medical apps may only tell us the symptom, not the problem

The rise of technology is beginning to make Star Trek style healthcare a possibility And would that be such a bad thing?

Every year increasing numbers of expensive space age looking machines in our hospitals peer into our innermost parts to diagnose or cure diseases. On a smaller scale, there are health apps we can download for our every need, reminding us when to take our blood pressure, see a doctor or take our medications – and much more. It seems that technology has it covered when it comes to health. We feel quite enthralled by it, but are also increasingly dependent on it for health.

I enjoy using technology just as much as everyone else. It’s a useful tool in my life. It is great to use a calculator to help with my math, or a spell checker to make sure that I publish this article with no mistakes. But I am cautious regarding how much I substitute it for deeper thinking. This is particularly true when it comes to how I view my health and how that affects the way I maintain it. It seems that I am not alone.

A growing number of physicians today are asking questions about “why” their patients are still suffering despite all the technological advances of, say, the past 25 years…..

A book recently published by TED calls these physicians “The Upstream Doctors.” Author Dr Rishi Manchanda, a physician and public health innovator from Los Angeles, is making waves in the health community. He is concerned that many doctors are concerned only with what is happening “downstream”; that is, with the effect of the problem a person is experiencing, rather than with its cause. In his introduction he writes

Upstreamists are the rare innovators on the front lines who see that health (like sickness) is more than a chemical equation that can be balanced with pills and procedures. … They see, rather, that health begins in our everyday lives, in the places where we live, work, eat and play.”

In other words, there is more going on than just a body part that is sick. There are many factors to consider; not only food, housing and social issues, but also how our emotions and thoughts affect our health.

A physician friend of mine told me of an experience when he was working in Ontario as a family practice doctor. After a long and difficult day, he was faced with a patient who was furious at being kept waiting. He recounted in an email to me: “My first, instinctual response was to return the anger and tell him about the day I was having – but I didn’t. Instead, I listened, and the patient’s anger quickly changed as he recounted the list of terrible things that had recently happened in his life. My heart went out to him. I completely understood his anger, and more importantly the fuel behind it – grief and fear. I listened and tried to be supportive where I could. As we both got up to leave he stopped me at the door and told me he felt so much better than when he had come in. In fact, this was the best he had felt in weeks. I was stunned; what had transpired was truly amazing to me.”

What this story indicated to me was how this doctor went “upstream.” Instead of tests and diagnoses, he listened and understood what the patient needed, which was to share his emotional pain with someone – pain that he was feeling physically. There is no app for that. An app or machine may tell us, or our physicians what seems to be wrong with our body, and how to deal with those symptoms, but it can’t tell us why we feel unwell. And it can’t do our inner thinking for us, help us to be better listeners, or to be more compassionate or patient with ourselves, and others.

Understanding and using what we learn about the role thought plays in our health is an important and empowering factor for wellness in ourselves, and therefore in our communities.

* This article was published July 17 2013  in the Vancouver Sun