Monday, September 26, 2016

Should Computers Replace Physicians?

In 2012, at the Health Innovation Summit in San Francisco, Vinod Khosla, Sun Microsystems co-founder and venture capitalist, declared: “Health care is like witchcraft and just based on tradition.” Biased and fallible physicians, he continued, don’t use enough science or data — and thus machines will someday rightly replace 80 percent of doctors. Earlier that same year, Khosla had penned an article for TechCrunch in which he had made a similar point. With the capacity to store and analyze every single biological detail, computers would soon outperform human doctors. He writes, “there are three thousand or more metabolic pathways, I was once told, in the human body and they impact each other in very complex ways. These tasks are perfect for a computer to model as ‘systems biology’ researchers are trying to do.” In Khosla’s vision of the future, by around 2022 he expects he will “be able to ask Siri’s great great grandchild (Version 9.0?) for an opinion far more accurate than the one I get today from the average physician.” In May 2014, Khosla reiterated his assertion that computers will replace most doctors. “Humans are not good when 500 variables affect a disease. We can handle three to five to seven, maybe,” he said. “We are guided too much by opinions, not by statistical science.”

The dream of replacing doctors with advanced artificial intelligence is unsurprising, as talk of robots replacing human workers in various fields — from eldercare to taxi driving — has become common. But is Vinod Khosla right about medicine? Will we soon walk into clinics and be seen by robot diagnosticians who will cull our health information, evaluate our symptoms, and prescribe a treatment? Whether or not the technology will exist is difficult to predict, but we are certainly on our way there. The IBM supercomputer Watson is already being used in some hospitals to help diagnose cancer and recommend treatment, which it does by sifting through millions of patient records and producing treatment options based on previous outcomes. Analysts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are training Watson “to extract and interpret physician notes, lab results, and clinical research.” All this is awe-inspiring. Let us generously assume, then, for a moment, that the technology for Khosla’s future will be available and that all knowledge about and treatment options for medical problems will be readily analyzable by a computer within the next decade or so. If this is the future, why shouldn’t physicians be replaced?

There are several errors in Khosla’s way of thinking about this issue. First of all, modern health care is not “like witchcraft.” Academic physicians, for example, use evidence-based medicine whenever it is available. And when it isn’t, then they try to reason through a problem using what biologists know about disease presentation, physiology, and pharmacology.

Moreover, Khosla mischaracterizes the doctor-patient interaction. For Khosla, a visit to the doctor involves “friendly banter” and questions about symptoms. The doctor then assesses these symptoms, “hunts around ... for clues as to their source, provides the diagnosis, writes a prescription, and sends you off.” In Khosla’s estimation the entire visit “should take no more than 15 minutes and usually takes probably less than that.” But the kind of visit Khosla writes about is an urgent care visit wherein quick and minor issues are addressed: strep throat or a small laceration requiring a stitch or two. Yes, these visits can take fifteen minutes, but so much of medicine does not involve these brief interactions. Consider the diabetic patient who has poorly controlled blood sugars, putting her at risk for stroke, heart attack, peripheral nerve destruction, and kidney failure, but who hasn’t been taking her medications. Or consider a patient addicted to cigarettes or on the verge of alcoholism. Consider the patient with Parkinson’s disease who wonders how this new diagnosis will affect his life. And what about the worried parents who want antibiotics for their child even though their child has a viral infection and not a bacterial infection? I can go on and on with scenarios like these, which occur hourly, if not daily, in nearly every medical specialty. In fact, fifteen-minute visits are the exception to the kind of medicine most physicians need to practice. One cannot convince an alcoholic to give up alcohol, get a diabetic patient to take her medications, or teach a Spanish-speaking patient to take his pills correctly in fifteen minutes. In addition, all this is impossible without “friendly banter.”

As Dr. Danielle Ofri, an associate professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, wrote in a New York Times blog post, compliance with blood pressure medications or diabetic medications is extremely difficult, involving multiple factors:

Besides obtaining five prescriptions and getting to the pharmacy to fill them (and that’s assuming no hassles with the insurance company, and that the patient actually has insurance), the patient would also be expected to cut down on salt and fat at each meal, exercise three or four times per week, make it to doctors’ appointments, get blood tests before each appointment, check blood sugar, get flu shots — on top of remembering to take the morning pills and then the evening pills each and every day.
Added up, that’s more than 3,000 behaviors to attend to, each year, to be truly adherent to all of the doctor’s recommendations.

Because of the difficulties involved in getting a patient to comply with a complex treatment plan, Dr. John Steiner argues in an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine that in order to be effective we must address individual, social, and environmental factors:

Counseling with a trusted clinician needs to be complemented by outreach interventions and removal of structural and organizational barriers. ...[F]ront-line clinicians, interdisciplinary teams, organizational leaders, and policymakers will need to coordinate efforts in ways that exemplify the underlying principles of health care reform.

Therefore, the interaction between physician and patient cannot be dispensed with in fifteen minutes. No, the relationship involves, at minimum, a negotiation between what the doctor thinks is right and what the patient is capable of and wants. To use the example of the diabetic patient, perhaps the first step is to get the patient to give up soda for water, which will help lower blood sugars, or to start walking instead of driving, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. We make small suggestions and patients make small compromises in order to change for the better — a negotiation that helps patients improve in a way that is admittedly slow, but necessarily slow. This requires the kind of give-and-take that we naturally have in relationships with other people, but not with computers.

This kind of interaction also necessitates trust — trust regarding illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and sexual activity, all of which can contribute to or cause certain medical problems. And a computer may ask the questions but cannot earn a patient’s confidence. After all, these kinds of secrets can only be exchanged between two human beings. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, writes in his book Incognito that when we reveal a secret, we almost always feel that “the receiver of the secrets has to be human.” He wonders why, for example, “telling a wall, a lizard or a goat your secrets is much less satisfying.” As patients, we long for that human reception and understanding that a physician can provide and use to our advantage in coming up with a diagnosis.

Khosla neglects other elements of medical care, too. Implicit in his comments is the idea that the patient is a consumer and the doctor a salesman. In this setting, the patient buys health in the same way that he or she buys corn on the cob. One doesn’t need friendly banter or a packet of paperwork to get the best corn, only a short visit to the grocery store.

And yet, issues of health are far more serious than buying produce. Let’s take the example of a mother who brings her child in for ADHD medication, a scenario I’ve seen multiple times. “My child has ADHD,” she says. “He needs Ritalin to help his symptoms.” In a consumer-provider scenario, the doctor gives the mother Ritalin. This is what she wants; she is paying for the visit; the customer is king. But someone must explain to the mother what ADHD is and whether her child actually has this disorder. There must be a conversation about the diagnosis, the medication, and its side effects, because the consequences of these are lifelong. Machines would have to be more than just clerks. In many instances, they would have to convince the parent that, perhaps, her child does not have ADHD; that she should hold off on medications and schedule a follow-up to see how the child is doing. Because the exchange of goods in medicine is so unique, consequential, and rife with emotion, it is not just a consumer-cashier relationship. Thus computers, no matter how efficient, are ill-fitted to this task.

Khosla also misunderstands certain treatments, which are directly based on human interactions. Take psychiatry for example. We know that cognitive behavioral therapy and medication combined are the best treatment for a disease like depression. And cognitive behavioral therapy has at its core the relationship between the psychiatrist or therapist and the patient, who together work through a depressed patient’s illness during therapy sessions. In cognitive behavioral therapy, private aspects of life are discussed and comfort is offered — human expressions and emotions are critical for this mode of treatment.


To be sure, Khosla is right about quite a lot. Yes, technology ought to make certain aspects of the patient visit more efficient. Our vital signs may one day easily be taken with the help of our mobile phones, as he suggests, which would save time checking in to a clinic and could help give physicians constant and accurate measurements of blood pressure in hypertensive patients or EKG recordings in patients with heart disease. Technology of this sort could also indicate when an emergency is happening or how a patient ought to alter medication doses.

Furthermore, Khosla correctly identifies some of the limitations of human physicians: “We cannot expect our doctor to be able to remember everything from medical school twenty years ago or memorize the whole Physicians Desk Reference (PDR) and to know everything from the latest research, and so on and so forth.” True, the amount of information accumulated by modern medical research is beyond the capability of any human being to know, and doctors do make mistakes because they forget or are not up on the latest research. In a 2002 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, investigators found that 15 percent of patients with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease do not necessarily fulfill criteria for the disease and 20 percent of patients with Parkinson’s disease who have already seen medical providers have not been diagnosed. These are large percentages that have profound implications for people’s lives. And this is exactly why physicians must use technologies like Watson to do a better job, not necessarily abdicate the job altogether. Most of us already carry smartphones or tablets on rounds, to look up disease processes or confirm our choice of antibiotic.

Lastly, Khosla wisely points out that physician bias can negatively affect a patient’s treatment. As he writes, “a physician’s bias makes all these personal decisions for patients in a majority of the cases without the patient (or sometimes even the physician) realizing what ‘preferences’ are being incorporated into their recommendations. The situation gets worse the less educated or economically less well-off the patient is, such as in developing countries, in my estimation.” Undoubtedly, this dilemma is real. I have spent many of my posts on this blog writing about the issue of remaining unbiased or level-headed in the face of difficult patient interactions. A study published in Obesity in 2013 found that physicians “demonstrated less emotional rapport with overweight and obese patients ... than for normal weight patients,” which may “weaken the patient-physician relationship, diminish patients’ adherence to recommendations, and decrease the effectiveness of behavior change counseling.” And as Tara Parker-Pope remarks in the New York Times, “studies show that patients are far more likely to follow a doctor’s advice and to have a better health outcome when they believe their doctor empathizes with their plight.” If bias exists in lieu of empathy, it makes sense that patients have worse outcomes. What makes doctors most valuable, their humanity, can have negative consequences.

But people can learn from studies, alter their behavior, and remain human. Computers or robots can learn from studies and alter their behavior, but they will always be robots. They will never earn the trust of the chronically ill drug addict. They will never be able to negotiate with the most difficult patients who demand specific treatments but may not be entirely sure why. An ideal system would not be one built solely on fallible human doctors but one in which new tools significantly augment human physicians’ skill and knowledge. A measured combination of these will put all the information at a doctor’s fingertips while keeping the art of medicine alive.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Revisiting The House of God

Dr. Stephen Bergman, a psychiatrist, published his now-famous satirical novel The House of God under the pseudonym Samuel Shem in August 1978. The book’s protagonist, a young intern, describes the emotional and physical difficulties during the first year of residency. With more than two million copies sold, the work is something of a classic within the medical profession.

Even in medical school, before we started our clinical rotations during our third year, some of my friends and professors recommended I read the novel, so I borrowed it from a fellow student. I enjoyed it but couldn’t fully identify with the characters in the story, which dealt with the hardships of residency: terrible hours, unsympathetic attending physicians, obstreperous and ornery patients, horrible deaths, and flailing personal relationships outside of the hospital because of the amount of time spent inside it. As a student, I hadn’t yet seen these things and from the outside this all seemed unrealistic: How, I asked myself, could this even be close to the reality of a modern academic hospital?

Now that I am through my third and fourth years of medical school as well as my first year of residency I have re-read the book, and I thought it would be interesting to reconsider my initial impression. Indeed, the novel is so much more relevant to me now. In order to illustrate this, it is worth looking at just a few passages.

I got more and more tired, more and more caught up in the multitudinous bowel runs and lab tests. The jackhammers of the Wing of Zock had been wiggling my ossicles for twelve hours. I hadn’t had time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and there was still more work to do. I hadn’t even had time for the toilet, for each time I’d gone in, the grim beeper had routed me out. I felt discouraged, worn. (p. 41)

Though slightly hyperbolic, all this is scarily familiar to me. On some days there is so much work to do that one doesn’t really have time to sit down and eat. Or, when one does finally have a spare moment (after 6 or 7 hours of running around), animal instincts take over and without being cognizant of it one ravenously attacks any food available. Some of us stick granola bars in our white coat pockets to prevent this sudden and unfettered hunger attack but even this is just enough to make us want more. Occasionally, the issue is that one forgets to eat and when we smell the trays of food being delivered to hospital rooms during lunchtime, our intestines do somersaults, squeeze, shiver, and groan as we are reminded of our baser needs. We experience pangs of hunger that occur throughout the day because meals, and even glasses of water if one has time for them, are far apart. I have, in multiple instances, come home at night or in the morning and stood for a moment in the kitchen while having an internal debate with myself: Am I more tired or hungry?

And Shem’s line about the “grim beeper” made me laugh out loud. I remember twice walking into the bathroom to answer the call of nature, when suddenly the shrill sound from my pager or phone prompts me to abort the mission, walk out, and answer the other call.

The talk was, on the part of the doctors, all medicine....

The accuracy of this is stunning. When residents get together or when we have a spare moment to chat at work, we don’t usually talk about politics or friendships or relationships so much as we talk about medical stories. We trade tales of difficult procedures or illnesses or we tell hilarious medical jokes. Friends who spend time with us outside of the hospital are shocked at how much we speak about work with each other. But a resident’s life revolves around the hospital. We (almost) literally reside at the hospital and the eventful aspects of our lives usually occur in the healthcare setting. As one can see from even a quick glance at some posts on this blog, medicine is filled with human drama, humor, sickness, death, and life. How do we avoid talking about all that in our spare time?

The House of God found it difficult to let some young terminal guy die without pain, in peace. Even though Putzel and the Runt had agreed to let the Man With Agonal Respirations die that night, his kidney consult, a House red-hot Slurper named Mickey who’d been a football star in college, came along, went to see the Agonal Man, roared back to us and paged the Runt STAT. Mickey was foaming at the mouth, mad as hell that his “case” was dying.... Mickey called a cardiac arrest. From all over the House, terns and residents stormed into the room to save the Man With Agonal Respirations from a painless peaceful death. (p. 245)

These can be traumatic moments, indeed (I have written about coding patients herehere, and here). Shem’s point is that we in the hospital sometimes do chest compressions on patients we surely will not be able to resuscitate or, if they are resuscitated, will be dependent on a ventilator and unconscious for the remainder of their days. Do we try to revive a 90-year-old with metastatic cancer to the spine and brain? Or do we try instead to make the patient as comfortable as possible? From the patient’s side (and the patient’s family’s side) the difficulty, which seems insurmountable, is in accepting the end. For most physicians, like the narrator of The House of God, the difficulty lies in cracking ribs and sending electrical shocks through someone’s body with no clear purpose. In fact, we frequently ask families to let us make their loved ones comfortable, at least, before they pass away. But that is not always the decision that is made. And in the passage above Shem satirically chides those who believe the best course is always to be as aggressive as possible.

Eat My Dust Eddie, being run ragged in the death-house, the MICU [Medical Intensive Care Unit], looked awful, and was talking about his previous night on call: “I was admitting my sixth cardiac arrest and I got this call from the E.W. — Hooper, it was you — saying that there was a guy down there who’d arrested and you were thinking of sending him to me if he survived. I hung up the phone, got down on my knees, and prayed: Please, God, kill that guy! I was on my knees, I mean ON MY KNEES!” (p. 126) 

My colleagues and I have never wished that anyone would die. But, undoubtedly, we all identify with the feeling of being overwhelmed. When you’re exhausted and still admitting patient after patient and trying to work them up for a new diagnosis while also taking care of other patients on the service, writing notes, fielding pages or phone calls from nurses, drawing blood, and doing CPR, there are moments when it feels as if there is no more time or effort left to give. You are working with rope with no slack or trying desperately to tread water. This is especially true in a place like the Intensive Care Unit, where patients are sicker and require closer monitoring. During those moments, we beseech the hospital gods: “please, no more admissions, please no more.” Or, “please don’t let anyone get sicker than they are.” It’s not every day one feels this way, but it is often enough that the sentiment is familiar.
*   *   *
When The House of God was first published it was not received well by Dr. Bergman’s colleagues and peers. As he tells it,

... my book The House of God enraged many among the older generation of doctors. I was maligned and disliked. The book was censored by medical school deans, who often kept me from speaking at their schools. None of it really bothered me, though. I was secure in the understanding that all I had done was tell the truth about medical training.

Thus, the book is not only a brilliant and witty piece of satirical literature, it is also a “fiction of resistance,” as Bergman describes it. Its most sinister and clueless characters are the ones in charge. And in many cases their worship at the altar of medicine and science damages their relationships with patients, residents, or each other.

Much has been written about this aspect of the book in recent years: Dr. Howard Brody of the University of Texas Medical Branch wrote about its relevance in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics in 2011. Dr. Suzanne Koven, a primary care physician, interviewed Dr. Bergman about the book for the Boston Globe in 2013. Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, discussed the book in a piece for the New York Times in 2009.

The reason for this interest may have something to do with a story Bergman tells in his own 2012 piece for The Atlantic:

And then one day I got a letter forwarded from my publisher, which included the line:
“I’m on call in a V.A. Hospital in Tulsa, and if it weren’t for your book I’d kill myself.”
I realized that I could be helpful to doctors who were going through the brutality of training. And so I began what has turned out to be a 35-year odyssey of speaking out, around the world, about resisting the inhumanity of medical training.

But the culture in medicine has changed dramatically since this book was written. Institutions are far more humane than they once were. Nevertheless, what we see and how much we need to see cannot change. Doctors ought to be exposed to a wide range of pathology; they must be exposed to death. This is how one learns to be a great doctor, to diagnose obscure diseases, to treat common diseases successfully, and to save lives during a hectic code in the hospital.

No matter how authority figures treat residents, Bergman’s book will always be precious to future generations of doctors. Like any great novel it identifies common yet significant human experiences. The author tells us, as it were, that “yes, I know exactly what this is like and I laughed at the same things you did. I made the same mistakes. I had the same difficulties.” Such commiseration ameliorates that unsettling feeling residents experience: the feeling that the hospital is a rabbit hole that spirals into a detached and harrowing yet hilarious world. And, because of The House of God, there will always be a shared understanding among residents and readers of the triumphs and tragedies accompanied by this feeling.