Years ago, while pregnant with my second son, I went off to do the usual ultrasound scan. The technician told me the fetus was “small for the pregnancy date” and instructed me to schedule a follow-up appointment. At the next scan, the technician again noted that the fetus was “too small”. For the third appointment, I insisted that my partner, who is more assertive in medical situations, accompany me. Something about the technician’s response and reaction wasn’t sitting right with me, but I felt too intimidated to express my opinion.
When the technician, during the third appointment, again said the fetus was too small, my partner demanded to consult with the attending doctor. The technician explained the “problem” to the doctor, who looked us up and down and stated, “Well, what do you want? Neither of the parents is exactly a giant!” — understatement of the year. The technician was using the ultrasound fetal measurement tool to make a decision without taking into consideration the human beings in the room. The “fetus” is now a normal-sized fourteen-year-old boy who is taller than his mother.
This highlights what I see as a hiccup in what is otherwise an extraordinary time in medical technological advancement. How do we benefit from technology without losing sight of the human in the room?
I was reminded of this personal story this week while listening to a presentation by Omeq Medical, one of the medical technology start-ups I work with. Omeq Medical is developing a sensor-based epidural placement system for safe, accurate epidural injections. Their system will give automatic acoustic and visual signals to indicate correct needle placement for accurate and safe epidural procedures. Today, positioning of the epidural needle is entirely based on the anesthesiologist’s doctor’s sense of touch and skill. The results of missing the target can be devastating. Omeq’s solution can prevent ineffective drug delivery, possible complications such as severe headaches and nerve damage.
But then, my mind entertained the idea of a future in which doctors are singularly dependent on technology and have lost the skill to position the needle on their own. I asked the Omeq team this very question. Don’t worry, they assured me, the device improves the doctor’s skill, works in conjunction with it, but doesn’t replace it.
Their answer quelled my immediate concerns, but later that day the discussion in my head continued. I started to apply it to all the technological wonders that we enjoy: the technologies that have made our kids into magnets attracted to every screen, virtual games that have replaced playing outside and interacting with kids. I am often critical of our digital, superficial interaction that has replaced real and deep communication. It’s obvious to me that the technologies that allow me to communicate so effortlessly with friends and family across the globe also have their dark side.
And then a friend of mine, who I had not seen for a while, popped over on a surprise visit. She asked me what I really do at work. As way of explanation, I asked her if she knew just how dangerous epidurals procedures could be. Her reply took me off guard. I had forgotten that her son — now a 16 year old, bright, healthy regular kid — was diagnosed with cancer at age three, so medical procedures are all too familiar to her. He received 10 chemotherapy sessions (injected epidurally). With her voice trembling ever-so-slightly after all these years, she described those sessions to me. She recounted how she would hang on to him, begging him to keep really still, while he knew it was going to hurt. Those few minutes were spent praying that he wouldn’t flinch and the doctor would get the needle in the right position. It would be nothing short of tragic, to be cured of cancer, but paralyzed due to an epidural procedure gone wrong.
So maybe there is a price to be paid for the technological developments that enter every part of our lives. It will definitely shape society, mold us as human beings; affect our relationships and our communication. These issues no doubt make for intriguing philosophical discussion and will continue to do so. But, would you forgo all the wonderful solutions that medical technology provides because of the chance that if it fails, your life will be in the hands of a well-trained doctor?
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