Post for CCIO blog 20/02/17 – The “technodoctor” and putting stories at the heart of healthcare

Here is a post on the CCIO blog which I guess crystallises some of the thoughts I have posted here inspired by Cecil Helman. So this marks a culmination of sorts of engagement with his work.

The “technodoctor” and putting stories at the heart of healthcare

Cecil Helman was a South African-born GP who died in 2009 of motor neurone disease. He was also an anthropologist whose textbook, Culture, Health and Illness, remains a key reference and teaching text for medical anthropology. His approach to medicine, and life, is summed up in the words of one of his obituaries:

For Cecil literature and art were as important as the science of medicine. He was fascinated by people, their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, the narratives of their illnesses, their interaction with practitioners, and the role of traditional healers in many different societies. As he said, to be an effective healer, a doctor needs to ‘understand the storyteller as well as the story’.

Cecil_HelmanWhile his academic works have had a major influence on healthcare education and training, his most popular book was 2006’s Suburban Shaman a “mosaic of memories” of storytellers/patients and their stories, informed by his anthropological knowledge and approach. A posthumous sequel, An Amazing Murmur of the Heart, is a sort of sequel, in which Helman discusses the often-dehumanising process of medical education, during which the patient becomes something denatured, disconnected from their narrative. And in this book Helman identifies a new kind of doctor – the “technodoctor”:

Young Dr A, keen and intelligent, is an example of a new breed of doctor – the ones I call ‘techno-doctors’. He is an avid computer fan, as well as a physician. He likes nothing better than to sit in front of his computer screen, hour after hour, peering at it through his horn-rimmed spectacles, tap-tapping away at his keyboard. It’s a magic machine, for it contains within itself its own small, finite, rectangular world, a brightly coloured abstract landscape of signs and symbols. It seems to be a world that is much easier for Dr A to understand , and much easier for him to control, than the real world –  one largely without ambiguity and emotion.

Helman further identifies that this attitude marks a further step along the road of reductionism and dehumanising in medical care:

Like many 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 was reminded by Robert Wachter’s speech at the 2016 CCIO Network Summer School in Leeds, on unintended consequences in health IT. He gave the example of hospitals where doctors are no longer to be found on the wards interacting with patients and other staff, but in a room full of doctors on computers, interacting with the EHR. The most stark illustration he used, however, was a child’s picture of a visit to the doctor, showing the doctor’s back turned to the child and her mother, tap-tapping away at the screen.

“A body that has become pure information” is how Helman describes the end process of the dehumanisation he decries. While I think the “technodoctor” is something of a straw man, Helman is certainly pointing to a genuine risk. “An Amazing Murmur of the Heart” is full of wisdom about the importance of connection, of physical touch, of attending to the story the patient brings, and the meaning of their symptoms for them. It would be a pity if this kind of rich, truly humanistic approach to medicine is somehow placed in opposition to the world of the “technodoctor.”

One way of avoiding the development of this false dichotomy into something tangible lies in Helman’s emphasis on the need to “understand the storyteller as well as the story.” What Helman doesn’t discuss in these passages is how paper-based information systems in healthcare can obscure the story and the storyteller in a welter of disjointed confusion. My own experience of paper notes is all too often wading through pages of confusing, if not illegible, notes, searching for something typewritten or printed. In this circumstance, the story the person is bringing to the encounter is utterly lost.

Initiatives like the EHR Personas allow for the conscientious, judicious use of narratives in planning and executing a major health IT change, one that could radically alter not only how healthcare is delivered but also how the personal story that is at the heart of all this activity is told.

Helman is, from the grave, issuing a warning, however, about what could go wrong. It is the same warning as that Bob Wachter gives with the child’s picture. It is fortunate that “narrative medicine” has become an academic subject in its own right, although perhaps this development indicates that something has been lost. In planning health IT interventions, we must ensure that they allow the story to be told and the storyteller to be heard. Let us focus on ensuring that the human stories that are the real stuff of every single clinical encounter are never lost, and that we turn our faces not to the screen but to those human stories.


#EHRPersonas – blogpost on CCIO site

Here is a post on the CCIO website on the recent EHR Personas workshop organised by eHealthIreland:


The HSE’s Chief Information Officer and the Clinical Strategy and Programmes Directorate are currently developing ‘Personas’ and ‘Scenarios’ to support the introduction of Electronic Health Records (EHR). As part of this project, a series of workshops for those working in the health services and also patients/service users was held on January 31stand February 1st.

One of the challenges of developing an EHR is capturing the diversity of needs it must address. Even a seemingly straightforward clinical setting will involve multiple interactions with multiple information sources. Contemporary mental health practice is focused on the community, but at the same time acute psychiatric units now co-located in acute general hospitals, and mental health issues very commonly arise simultaneously with general health needs, there is considerable overlap with the hospital system. Mental health services increasingly integrate multiple models of mental health, not only a purely medical one; while simultaneously safe psychiatric practice requires access to laboratory and imaging systems to the same degree as other medical disciplines.

Mental health services are therefore interacting with hugely complex information networks. Capturing all this complexity in a useful form is a considerable challenge. Personas and scenarios allow the expertise of patients and clinicians to be synthesised and for assumptions about what an EHR is for and can do to be challenged.

As a participant in a service provider workshop, I naturally enough was grouped with other mental health professionals. Most of our team were mental health nurses – in the community, delivering therapies and liaising with general hospital staff. We also had representation from pharmacy and administration, and myself as a psychiatrist. Other workshops include the diverse range of health professionals that make up a multidisciplinary community mental health team.
The service user persona was Tom, a 19 year old student from Mayo who has recently started university in Dublin. Tom’s friends notice he is more withdrawn and generally “not himself” and are sufficiently concerned to persuade him to attend the college health services where he sees a GP. There a physical examination, blood work and a urine drug screen are performed. A referral is made via HealthLink to a community mental health team. However a couple of nights later Tom becomes much more distressed and tells his friends he needs to escape from black-coated men following him everywhere. Tom’s friends bring him to the local Emergency Department where he is medically assessed and referred for a psychiatric opinion.

The scenario attempted to address how an EHR would address multiple issues that effect current mental health practice – from communication between primary care and mental health services to the avoiding duplication of investigations and of questioning.

One of the most persistent items of feedback from mental health service users is the initial contact with services involving much repetition of the same questions – often including biographical and demographic data – at a time of distress and anxiety.There is also frequently repetition of investigations and physical examinations, even when these have already been performed.

In our scenario, the situation developed with Tom deciding to move back home to Mayo and re-presenting to his local GP. This brought up a whole range of issues around the interaction between primary care, student health services, the mental health services across different catchment areas and regions. In our group, we discussed how the issue of access to the National Shared Record could play out with various permutations of consent from Tom, and the impact this could have on his care.

The second persona focused on a community mental health nurse, Ann, on her daily routine of calling to service users across a geographically dispersed mixed urban/rural area, engaging with clients at various stages of recovery, and administering treatments such as depot injections of antipsychotic medication and centrally dispensed medication such as clozapine. In our scenario we introduced features typical of remote working in an environment where mobile connections are not always reliable. Features such as the ability to work offline and upload updated records when back online were discussed.

In both service user and clinician scenarios, it became clear that if technology is to improve how health systems work for the benefit of the patient, it is in many ways by becoming invisible, by making the clinical interaction frictionless and about the person at its heart. The need for repeated, intrusive and unnecessary investigations – and questioning – could be reduced, allowing therapeutic interactions to take place unhindered. Both personas, and both scenarios, reinforced for me that the health system must have the service user – such as Tom – at its heart, and the delivery of healthcare is ultimately by people – such as Ann.

At its best, technology can enable this ultimately deeply personal interaction, rather than acting as another barrier, another “system” to be navigated.