A High Tech Backlash

We're told smart phones, electronic medical records, and cars with computers will improve our lives. However, columnist Jeff Brown says there's little evidence these technological advancements are actually making life easier.

It’s been a while since I went on a good rant, but I am getting fed up with the downside of the rapid onrush of technology into our lives. Oh sure, there is evidence everywhere you look that tech advances are improving human lives in a myriad of ways. And it is clear that in economic terms our society as a whole has benefitted tremendously. But there are some real costs and drawbacks even on a personal level.

To my point, let’s look at our smart phones, which seem to be smarter than we are; our cars, which have become giant rolling computers; and that other computer boondoggle, the electronic medical record (EMR).

Most docs have had a chance to interface with EMRs by now. Is anyone happier? Is the practice of medicine easier or more effective? Has the EMR saved, or perish forbid, made money for any doc? I think not.

In theory EMRs are a potential advance and in time they may prove out. But they are currently expensive, and their awkward, complicated use has replaced excess waiting time as the number one complaint of patients. “He/she won’t look me in the eye.” But for now, in my book, EMRs are running a poor second place to good old-fashioned paper records, even with paper’s considerable shortcomings.

Years ago, a large multispecialty group restructured their organization based upon an EMR. Realizing the passive resistance that the previously un-consulted medical staff would use to undermine the project, management came up with one good idea to get positive support. They asked each doc to come to 3 nightly instruction seminars to familiarize them on how to use this new, complex tool. And then each doc received a check for $5,000. Talk about “buy-in!” But it helped them get past the familiarization hump.

Our smart phones, widely acknowledged to have more computing power than Apollo 13, remain something of a mystery to many who use them. In fact, 2 friends of mine, PhDs in engineering no less, have admitted that they know how to use “only 2%” of the device’s capability. And 1 million apps? Really? You know what I am talking about. We do have non-tech lives to live.

My last example in this scree is the 2015 automobile. My wife just got a new one and after confronting the daunting electronic changes since her last car, she finally admitted that she should have bought an older, simpler vehicle. The so-called “Luxury” car has become defined as the car having the most computerized bells and whistles possible. That’s at least 30 chips per car.

After the salesman demonstrated how virtually everything in her shiny new whiz-bang is automated, my wife timidly asked “What computer screen do I use to adjust the rear-view mirror?” He said “Use your hand.” The last vestige before the driver-less car.

Look, I know that some of this is generational. But I also know that if I put in the time I can work my way through the 325-page instruction manual to learn this vehicle’s over-engineered capabilities. But the huge time and effort to learn any of these gadgets-to-solve-a-problem-that-I-don’t-have is not worth it in my book. Or for the multiple aps on my phone. Or the user un-friendly EMR.

Maybe my wife was right. We should stick to simpler tools to meet our actual needs. But please don’t tell her that I said so. It would set a dangerous precedent.