Unintended consequences and Health IT

Last week along with other members of the Irish CCIO group I attended the UK CCIO Network Summer School. Among many thought provoking presentations and a wonderful sense of collegiality (and the scale of the challenges ahead), one which stood out was actually a video presentation by Dr Robert Wachter, whose review into IT in the NHS (in England) is due in the coming weeks and who is also the author of “The Digital Doctor: Hype, Hope and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age”


Amongst many other things, Dr Wachter discussed the unintended consequences of Health IT. He discussed how, pretty much overnight, radiology imaging systems destroyed “radiology rounds” and a certain kind of discussion of cases. He discussed how hospital doctors using eHealth systems sit in computer suites with other doctors, rather than being on the wards. Perhaps most strikingly, he showed a child’s picture of her visit to the doctor. in which the doctor is turned away from the patient and her mother, hunched over a keyboard:


This reminded me a little of Cecil Helman’s vision of the emergence of a “technodoctor”, which I suspected was something of a straw man:

Like may other doctors of his generation – though fortunately still only a minority – Dr A prefers to see people and their diseases mainly as digital data, which can be stored, analysed, and then, if necessary, transmitted – whether by internet, telephone or radio – from one computer to another. He is one of those helping to create a new type of patient, and a new type of patient’s body – one much less human and tangible than those cared for by his medical predecessors. It is one stage further than reducing the body down to a damaged heart valve, an enlarged spleen or a diseased pair of lungs. For this ‘post-human’ body is one that exists mainly in an abstract, immaterial form. It is a body that has become pure information.

I still suspect this is overall a straw man, and Helman admits this “technodoctor” is “still only [part of] a minority” – but perhaps the picture above shows this is less of a straw man than we might be comfortable with.

Is there a way out of the trap of unintended consequences? On my other blog I have posted on Evgeny Morozov’s “To Solve Everything, Click Here.”  a book which, while I had many issue with Morozov’s style and approach (the post ended up being over 2000 words which is another unintended consequence), is extremely thought-provoking. Morozov positions himself against “epochalism” – the belief that because of technology (or other factors) we live in a unique era. He also decries “solutionism”, a more complex phenomenon, of which he writes:

I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations “solutionism.” I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning – where it has come to refer to an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental and narrow-minded solutions – the kind of stuff that wows audiences at TED Conferences – to problems that are extremely complex, fluid and contentious. These are the kind of problems that, on careful examination, do not have to be defined in the singular and all-encompassing ways that “solutionists” have defined them; what’s contentious then, is not their proposed solution but their very definition of the problem itself. Design theorist Michael Dobbins has it right: solutionism presumes rather than investigates the problems that it is trying to solve, reaching “for the answer before the questions have been fully asked.” How problems are composed matters every bit as much as how problems are resolved.

As will be very clear from my other article, I don’t quite buy everything Morozov is selling (and definitely not the way he sells it!) , but in this passage I believe we are close to something that can help us avoid some of the traps that lead to unintended consequences. Of courses, these are by definition unintended, and so perhaps not that predictable, but by investigating rather than presuming the problems we are trying to solve, and not reaching for the answer before the questions have been fully asked, perhaps future children’s pictures of their trip to the hospital won’t feature a doctor turning their back on them to commune with the computer.


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