Technology destroys doctor-patient relationships

Popular television character Dr. Gregory House is no example to follow, Sherwin Nuland MED ’55 said at a talk Thursday.

In front of an audience of nearly 100 people at the Anlyan Center on Cedar Street, Nuland, a worldclass surgeon and author, argued that new technology and the rapid advance of science is distancing physicians from their patients. In his talk, sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Nuland emphasized the importance of empathy when dealing with the ill. All eight of the doctors and community members in the audience interviewed said they agreed on the need for doctors to be compassionate, but four questioned whether the problem of apathetic doctors is as big as Nuland asserted.

“It’s impossible to cure anybody if you’re not a good person,” Nuland said.

It is the emotional connection that develops between patient and physician that often gives patients motivation to improve, he said, adding that since the time of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the best physicians have been those with the best characters.

But technology has created a medical fascination with disease rather than the wellbeing of patients, Nuland said.

“They don’t care about patient care,” Nuland said. “They care about dissecting.”

In November 2004, just before the show was about to air for the first time, Nuland was asked by TV Guide to review the first three episodes.

“This won’t last for five seasons,” he said.

Audience members had mixed responses regarding Nuland’s claim that medicine lacks the essential human touch.

Leslie Blatt, a clinical instructor in the School of Nursing, said that when new physicians enter medical practice, their classroom knowledge is synthesized with experience and makes them more attentive to their patients’ needs.

“When people are learning they need to focus on the ‘riddle of the disease’,” Blatt said.

Others audience members, however, said they felt that medicine does not always place the utmost priority on patients.

“In my own experience, physicians are so tied into seeing patients to pay their bills that I feel they impose pressure on themselves to get done with one patient and move on to the next,” said John Sevanick of Clinton, Conn.

Nuland is the author of the National Book Award-winning book “How We Die” and was a 1995 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Book Critics Circle Award.


  • townieexprof

    as a physician who had the misfortune of becoming sick and then having to make the rounds of multiple specialists, I can assure the readers what Dr. Nuland is saying is 100% on target. As a physician, to have received the incredibly impersonal and at times insulting and condescending treatment at the hands of folks I had referred my own patients to was a big eye-opener. The riddle of disease seems to be the number one interest for most docs, and now glorified and enshrined in the useless TV show House and the similar unfortunate nytimes mag pieces that inspired this show. It has made me look back at the many complaints I have heard from patients over the years about how this doctor never listened or treated them or their child poorly with completely different ears. This type of complaint is now so universal that any physician who ignores the complaint is asking to be replaced by nurses or other physician extenders. Money is not the reason, just an excuse.