Three medical professionals walked into the examination room where I was waiting for them late last year – my oncologist and a registered nurse, both of whom I knew, and a social worker.
The four of us sat close together as the oncologist told me my cancer, after a period of remission, had reappeared in a lung and in my peritoneum, and that it could not be cured.
Particularly after a period of several months when no cancer had been detected, the news was, if not entirely unexpected, a stunner. I was shaken and I cannot imagine getting through the ensuing conversation about treatment possibilities without the doctor holding my hand.
That simple human gesture, the warmth and reassurance of another person's touch, is what anyone needs when being confronted with terrible news.
Nevertheless, last week, a dying man and the granddaughter who was with him in a California hospital room was informed he had only a few days to live by a robot doctor. Take a look at the phone video recorded by the granddaughter:
Seventy-eight-year-old Ernest Quintana died two days later. As CBSnews.com reported:
”Granddaughter Annalisia Wilharm, 33, was alone with Quintana when a nurse popped in to say a doctor would be making his rounds. A robot rolled in and a doctor appeared on the video screen. Wilharm figured the visit was routine. She was astonished by what the doctor started saying.
"'This guy cannot breathe, and he's got this robot trying to talk to him,' she said. 'Meanwhile, this guy is telling him, “So we've got your results back, and there's no lung left. There's no lung to work with.”
“Wilharm said she had to repeat what the doctor said to her grandfather, because he was hard of hearing in his right ear and the machine couldn't get to the other side of the bed.”
A hospital spokesperson later apologized to the family for the insensitivity but went on to say that the characterization of the live video physician as a robot was inaccurate. According to CNN,
”Gaskill-Hames, the hospital spokeswoman, said the health care provider is 'continuously learning how best to integrate technology into patient interactions.'
"'In every aspect of our care, and especially when communicating difficult information, we do so with compassion in a personal manner,' she said, adding that the term 'robot' is 'inaccurate and inappropriate.'"
In what world, I wonder, is it good and right and compassionate to hear you'll be dead in a few days from a screen? I can't be sure but none of the reports I read of this incident made mention that the “robot” checked to see that the patient was not alone when this news was delivered.
Having my hand held by the doctor while she told me about the change in my condition made all the difference to me. I'm not sure I could even have parsed the new diagnosis if I had been alone with a robot when the words were said. And how would I have asked questions?
For the record, I'm not against telemedicine in general; I think there should be more of it.
Often enough when I see one of my physicians, it's not for an exam or painful-to-hear information; it's a discussion of how I'm doing, how my body is tolerating chemotherapy, what concerns me that day.
We could as easily have that conversation via video and make an in-person appointment if that became necessary.
But to repeat myself: In what world is it good and right and compassionate to hear you'll be dead in a few days from a screen? And why wouldn't hospital personnel, who work every day with ailing, vulnerable people, already know the answer to that?