When my 90-year-old father fell at home a few months ago, a trip to the emergency room revealed that he was shaken and dazed by the experience but not seriously injured. A follow-up visit to his clinic, however, turned into an unexpected piece of medical theater. The doctor entered the examining room with two lab-coated medical students in tow. From the threshold, he greeted my father, who was perched anxiously on the examining table, and then immediately turned to a computer in the corner of the room. After conferring with the students for a moment about the data on the screen, the physician looked toward my father. “Labs look OK. If you have any complications, give me a call.” Then, like white-winged waterfowl flapping away from a pond, the medicos were gone.
A rushed and harried teaching day for the physician? Probably. But even so, this reflects a troubling trend in contemporary medicine. In one corner of the room were the facts of the case, the data flashing on a computer screen. In the other corner of the room was the patient, the human being, shivering, perplexed and untouched.
Lewis Thomas, the late dean of Yale Medical School, once observed that although younger physicians today are superbly trained, they often lack two essentials. First, as children of the antibiotic era, most have never been sick and thus cannot truly empathize with their gravely ill patients. Second, in focusing on the tools and techniques of scientific medicine, they have forgotten that all healing derives from human touch. “The doctor’s oldest skill in trade was to place his hands on the patient,” Thomas said. People who are sick long to be touched, which ironically is the very thing that even close friends and family often avoid. In today’s mechanized medicine, doctors, too, are prone to keep their distance. “Medicine,” said Thomas, “is no longer the laying on of hands, it is more like the reading of signals from machines.”