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Computerized Diagnostics in Healthcare Potentially Hazardous to Our Health

necocopiosus, 5/30/14

National Nurses United has been running ads on TV and radio lately about the obvious dangers of a troubling trend in our increasingly corporatized, for-profit healthcare system (consisting of the large hospital chains and health insurance cartels), replacing nurses and doctors with computerized diagnostics and protocols, which must be rigidly followed.

The nurses contend they are concerned about the potential harm these unfeeling, non-human computerized protocols might cause their patients. Such rigid adherence to computerized diagnostics seems to this observer self-evidently to be a bad idea and I am pleased to see that the nurses understand this as well. We are all potential patients someday, and I for one want humans to remain in the diagnostic equation with the ability to override or ignore computerized or automated patient assessment.

But not so fast say some critics who have accused the nurses of being “anti-progress.” One critic of the ads recently unabashedly stated, “Auto repair diagnosis has also become highly automated. I think it is an interesting exercise to compare this to medical automation.” In other words, computerized diagnostics help Joe at Joe’s Auto Repair down the street to figure out what’s wrong with your car therefore, (insert quantum leap of logic here), why wouldn’t the same hold true for the hospital down the street with automated medical diagnostics? This critic apparently sees no difference between the computerized assessment of an automobile’s breakdown and the breakdown of a human being. Lost on this critic as well, is the reality that while there is very little variation among automobiles, there are no two human beings alike. The critic went on to equate the nurses, in so many words, with head-in-the-sand, anti-progress Luddites.

In Utah in the early ‘80s many in the Provo area opposed the expansion of a local steel smelter, which was polluting the air and causing an inordinate amount of respiratory illness among area children. The opponents of the smelter expansion were accused of being “against progress!” The smelter was later closed for financial reasons and lo and behold, the air became cleaner and childhood respiratory illness dropped drastically.

The promoters of automated healthcare diagnostics similarly argue their new gadgets represent “progress!” But just like in the example of the smelter expansion, the focus should not be solely on some vague notion of progress or whether it saves money, but should also include the question – Is this safe? What impact will this have on my health and the health of my children?

We’ve become accustomed to believe technological innovation represents “progress” but have forgotten that such innovations do not inexorably result in improvement of the human condition. Blind obedience to notions like — “progress is always good” — is tantamount to the worship of a false idol. Modern capitalism and its adherents have been worshiping at this alter for so long it has become sacrilegious even to question whether the latest innovation will actually improve anything.

Humans have “advanced” in the name of “progress” with such alacrity that the rest of us can hardly stand it; e.g., Chernobyl, Fukushima, climate change. Blindly contending the latest innovation or improvement equals “progress” is truly modern day idol worship. Or as the late Colorado governor William Gilpin once said, we have come to believe that “progress is God.”

We are all potential patients someday, and I for one want humans to remain in the diagnostic equation with the ability to override or ignore computerized or automated patient assessment. I am therefore glad that the nurses union gets this and are resisting human-less medical diagnoses. Hang in there and keep up the good fight nurses! We need and trust you!


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