My Nurse is an Idiot. Where’s My Watson?
In March of 2007, I went to my local doctor’s office for a routine checkup. The nurse who took my vitals began relating to me the experience he had just had with the doctor’s previous patient, a high school girl who had come in with her mother.
“She opened her mouth and I looked in and said, ‘Well, it looks like you’ve contracted genital herpes in your mouth. Are you sexually active?’
“The girl looked really surprised,” he chuckled as he slipped the blood pressure cuff around my arm, ignoring my mortified expression, “but not as surprised as her mother who was standing right next to me.” He laughed. “I thought she was going to get in trouble for sure until the doctor had a look and said it was only strep throat.”
I was too aghast to say anything. What on earth was this nurse doing sharing another patient’s information with me? What ever happened to confidentiality? And what in the world was he doing, presuming to diagnose a patient before the doctor even saw her? That poor girl, I thought. What sort of conversation must she be having with her mom right now?
A slight frown crossed the nurse’s face as he put his blood pressure cuff away. “Hmm,” he said, “you’re reading just barely below what we like to see.” He let his gaze linger over my less than slender figure and my ears started to get hot. What was he staring at? Then he leaned in close to me and asked conspiratorially, “You’re not starving yourself to lose weight, are you? Because that’s really bad for your body.”
It wasn’t until his face showed a measure of uncertainty that I realized I was flashing him my best “you’re an absolute IMBECILE” look.
“No,” I said pointedly (and slowly, so I could be sure he would understand), “I just got back from a yoga class and I’ve been doing some deep breathing.” I stared at him until he backed out of my personal space. “I eat, okay?”
What an idiot.
It would delight me to say that this is the only example of medical ineptness that anyone has ever had to face, or the most horrifying one, but it’s not. According to an article in the April 2011 edition of Health Affairs, a health policy journal, “medical errors occur in one-third of hospital admissions, as much as ten times more common than previously estimated.” Doctors are overworked, staff are under-trained, and high-stress environments are a breeding ground for medical mishaps – some resulting in death.
Meanwhile, IBM’s Deep QA Project has developed an artificially intelligent computer nicknamed Watson, who shocked the world by becoming the new Jeopardy! champion. Watson displays an ability to understand natural language, searches a massive database of information to obtain a correct answer, and successfully creates connections between ambiguous wording and a desired response – all with a friendly demeanor.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather have Watson treat me if he can access all the medical information in the world, make informed decisions based on intelligence that evolves, and understand me in a conversation.
Doctors already use a variety of machines to assist them: X-Rays, MRIs, and EEGs to list a few. So, if we’ve developed a computer with the computational capacity to assist those practicing medicine, why not eventually replace the doctor all together?
We’ve actually done that already – in television. Star Trek: Voyager, an science fiction series set in the star trek universe and inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek, has a holographic doctor on board its ship. Programmed with all current Starfleet medical knowledge and designed to treat patients during emergency situations, the hologram was simply known as, “The Doctor.” Having a human form seemed important to the series, and questions surrounding The Doctor’s humanity (or lack therof) were frequently raised throughout the show’s storyline.
So, is talking to a bona fide human all that important when seeking medical treatment? Or would relying on artificially intelligent computers actually cause an increase in mistakes? Watson did miss a few questions when he played Jeopardy!, so what happens when a compu-doc gets it wrong? On the other hand, human doctors get it wrong with alarming frequency. Wouldn’t a computer be an improvement over a person?
Of course, the medical community has its share of exemplary doctors and nurses. I’m not knocking the entire medical community, but there are times when I’d rather talk to a floating ball on a computer screen that at least gets it right than have to worry about being accidentally misdiagnosed with an STI.
Still, while I am admittedly upset that upset that some members of the medical community are unprofessional, what credence am I giving to the rest of it? Sometimes I would rather talk to a computer, sure, but would I really want my baby delivered by a machine? The thought of cold, robotic arms (precise though they may be) being the first touch my newborn experiences makes my skin crawl.
And what credit am I giving the traditional “hunch?” What about the unconventional decisions a doctor makes that saves a patient’s life? Will a computer think outside the box or make decisions on the fly that don’t seem to make sense but ultimately result in medical success?
Does a larger database of information and greater problem-solving capabilities automatically mean better medicine?
Or is there something to a doctor’s intuition that can’t be replicated by technology?
To my nurse in 2007, I say: Go take a class in business etiquette; to Watson: Though you may be smart, I’m not sure I’m ready to put my life in your hands just yet.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a yoga class to get to.