New! Distracted Featured in "Grace Notes" Exhibit at New York Society Library from January 19 to February 22 - New York City

Medical Distractions – part 2

I often talk to groups about the costs of distraction. I speak about problem-solving, information overload, engagement, fragmented “presence,” and our deep-seated need for rich, complex social interaction. And intriguingly, what people wind up discussing most is the social cost of distraction. High-level bankers, corporate executives, educators and parents alike viscerally lament an era when we’re more often connected to a machine than to a human.

That’s why a recent New York Times article about attention and medical errors in hospitals caught my eye.

Just last week I blogged about medical errors due to distraction, and how California hospital nurses are taking steps to reduce interruptions during the dispensing of medicine. The Times article by a San Diego physician provides a perfect follow-on, in discussing how growing procedural efforts to reduce errors in work sometimes lead the profession to overlook their duty to attend to the patient.

Dr. Dena Rifkin begins the article with a compelling story of saving a young woman’s life simply by listening closely and spotting symptoms that her doctors had missed. She also tells of being present when a close family member was treated in a cursory and hurried fashion that missed important clues to his real condition.

Rifkin links these alarming stories to a “fundamental problem” of healthcare today: “a change in focus from treating the patient toward satisfying the system.” Doctors attend to “benchmarks and check boxes,” more than to the sick human. A patient’s treatment can meet “all the current standards for quality care” yet offer “an utter lack of human attention.”

“As a profession, we are paying attention to the details of medical errors – ambiguous charts abbreviations, to vaccination practices and hand-washing and many other important, or at least quantifiable, matters,” writes Rifkin.

“But as we bustle from one-documented chart to the next, no one is counting whether we are still paying attention to the human beings,” she writes. “The best source of information, the best protection from medical error, the best opportunity to make a difference” are the patients, she writes. “We must remember the unquantifiable value of asking the right questions.”

Well said. Whether we are pilots or nurses, doctors or parents, bankers or students, we need to step back and re-examine our relationship to the machine. A life that is foremost computational, quantifiable and clock-driven is dehumanizing. In sickness and in health, we should be restoring our machines to their rightful places as tools, not looking to them as panaceas.

The word panacea derives from the Greek for “all-healing.” But that’s what machines are not.

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