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Why Doctors Hate Their Computers

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 09, 2018

Nobody writes about health care practice from the inside out like Atul Gawande, here focusing on an increasingly important part of clinical work: information technology.

A 2016 study found that physicians spent about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient—whatever the brand of medical software. In the examination room, physicians devoted half of their patient time facing the screen to do electronic tasks. And these tasks were spilling over after hours. The University of Wisconsin found that the average workday for its family physicians had grown to eleven and a half hours. The result has been epidemic levels of burnout among clinicians. Forty per cent screen positive for depression, and seven per cent report suicidal thinking—almost double the rate of the general working population.

Something’s gone terribly wrong. Doctors are among the most technology-avid people in society; computerization has simplified tasks in many industries. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers.

It’s not just the workload, but also what Gawande calls “the Revenge of the Ancillaries” — designing software for collaboration between different health care professionals, from surgeons to administrators, all of whom have competing stakes and preferences in how a product is used and designed, what information it offers and what it demands. And most medical software doesn’t handle these competing demands very well.