Tech exploration in the health industry

Posted on April 26, 2009

I have a subscription to Harper's Magazine, and I try to read it as regularly as possible (although that's tough when we're all in similar boats with a million things going on). In this year's February edition, I came across a pretty good article titled "Sick in the head: Why America won't get the health-care system it needs" by Luke Mitchell. As the title suggests, the article is an in-depth review of multiple organizations, insurance conglomerations, and individuals who are essentially trying to "help" fix a broken system. Of course, all entities involved seem to understand that money, not people's health, drive the system, regardless of which side or what opinion you have.

I admit that I skimmed through the majority of the article until I came to a section labeled "THE TECHNOLOGY SECTOR." The story went on to describe a few state-of-the-art pieces of machinery, created by the McKesson Corporation, to help eliminate errors, reduce costs, and ultimately, provide better health care for the nation. Company CIO Randy Spratt explained to the author that the solution was "to remove people from the process" when showing off its "automated inventory-management tool" that could fill all prescriptions with almost zero error.

Spratt then showed Mitchell the Health Buddy, which is a home monitoring device used for those individuals suffering from chronic and/or ongoing issues. The system sends data back to the caregiver, who then determines when to send out a nurse to the residence. The data produced could be anything from a heart rate (a number of input devices can be plugged into it, like a blood-pressure cuff, a scale, and a blood-glucose meter) to knowing if and when the patient got out of bed in the morning.

The last item discussed in the story was an automated pharmacy machine, which could dispense pills based on an account/PIN entered into the system. Once the correct number of pills came out of the machine, the user had to "sign" to acknowledge that he or she had received the correct number and that the meds had been billed to insurance.

So now, instead of an individual counting out pills, or instead of an individual making regular house calls, we would be relying on machines to do some of the more mundane things and act somewhat as the middlemen. Then again, what happens when one of the machines spits out the wrong medication, or what happens when the Health Buddy malfunctions without the actual caregiver knowing about it? As Ellul said multiple times, creating a piece of technique may seem to solve one problem but it just creates another.

Also, I think Roszak and others would question the need for building these machines, but they would probably pin the fact that technology is so heavily taught now in the classroom that students think this is the only option to help move the nation/world forward. To me, the machines seem like intriguing items, but with regard to medicine in general, you would think a person or people would still need to be running the thing.

I'm just now reminded of the old LifeLine commercials, where the lady presses the button on her pseudo-necklace and says "Help, I've fallen, and I can't get up!" For those authors critical of the advancement of technology for the wrong reasons, they might choose just to stay down.