As one attendee put it, DotMED’s venue, Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, is not your average conference centre. But then, DotMED is not your average medical conference either, describing itself as a ‘festival of medical curiosity’. Here are our top ten takeaways from the event.
Digital medicine needs to solve problems that really exist if it is to be useful – Many digital health and well-being innovations seem to be solutions in search of a problem. The HapiFork, for example, that helps you eat more slowly. The Hair Coach to sense dryness in your hair. Even Fitbits turn out to be more of a problem than a solution: those with Fitbits certainly don’t seem to take more exercise, and if possible, the reverse is true.
Remote monitoring has huge potential for managing serious diseases like Ebola – For diseases and conditions that can harm medical professionals, remote (digital) monitoring of vital signs has huge potential to save lives. Although these conditions may be rare, they are also life-threatening, and finding a way to manage them more easily could be a massive benefit.
Despite some deniers, artificial intelligence is already a reality in healthcare – Taking a common sense approach, it is clear that artificial intelligence (AI) is widely applicable in healthcare. If something operates using a set of rules, it can be automated. Even diagnosis has potential to be automated, if doing so brings all diagnostic activity up to the level of the best. Perhaps it is as well if doctors remember what AI can never replace: empathy and kindness.
It is already possible to access a ‘virtual psychiatrist’ – Chatbots are already being used in mental health services. In a sector that has long struggled with staff shortages, particularly for talking therapies, many see this as a major boon. As one speaker put it, you can’t be replaced if you were never there. The idea that an app could be used to help those at risk of suicide is very appealing.
Patients are already taking things into their own hands – The hashtag #WeAreNotWaiting makes clear that patients are not prepared to hang about until healthcare professionals decide what is best for them, or what technology could and should be used to achieve. Instead, they are already starting to use healthcare apps, including a mental health one called Moodies. This may turn out to be healthcare’s BYOD moment.
It is important for doctors not to know – Not knowing moves the situation from ‘jumping to answers’ towards ‘asking questions’. Patients usually know what is wrong: they just need time to tell clinicians. And that means that clinicians need to take time to listen and hear. When symptoms do not make sense, doctors need to pay attention to what is hidden and think creatively. In other words, they need to embrace uncertainty. Sometimes the right question is ‘why are you here?’
“The kingdom of the sick is not a democracy” – In these days of talking about patient-centred care, and the importance of listening to patients, it can sometimes be hard for doctors to appreciate just how much power they have. Sickness is not a democracy: patients are sick, and doctors may just have the answers. But they also need to listen to their patients, and communicate carefully and effectively.
Above all, doctors are human – Medical knowledge is important; nobody would deny that. But it is also vital that doctors remember that they are humans, working with humans. Everybody has a story, and part of the doctor’s role is to hear and understand that story. This helps them to connect as a human being with their patients. As one patient put it, a little kindness goes a long way.
All doctors are also patients – Many clinicians sometimes seem to have forgotten this, but it is key to getting healthcare right: we will all be patients at some stage, clinicians and non-clinicians alike. It is therefore vital for all of us that healthcare works for patients, rather than for doctors. Doctors sometimes need to walk in patients’ shoes for a while.
Therapy, treatment and healing may come from some unexpected places – Bibliotherapy (prescribing books) and music may not be the most obvious courses of treatment. But we all know how music and books can lift our spirits. Novels can help people to understand and face difficult situations through the protagonist. Perhaps it was no accident that the ancient Greeks named Apollo as the god of both music and medicine.