Sunday, November 22, 2015

Technology, the Triple Aim, and the Three Laws of Robotics

The triple aim of health care (improve the patient experience, improve population health and lower per capita cost) remains the driving force in health policy since Donald Berwick, Thomas Nolan and John Whittington first described it in Health Affairs in 2008.  Information technology is now being used in ways unimagined in the past to drive the triple aim, often with less success than had been anticipated.  The challenge has been and continues to be, using information technology effectively while maintaining the aspects of medical care that require the human touch.  The real challenge is how to harness the power of the computer in what must remain a caring pursuit. 

It is clear that our quest to incorporate computers into medical care and perhaps even direct medical care, risks losing the essence of medicine – the humanism and caring tradition that should be paramount.  I have written before in an earlier post of my own experience in the hospital and the fact that I felt ignored as the staff worked diligently to address the need to answer the computer’s demands (My Recent Hospital Stay and the Care of the Computer).   Yet I know that our ability to properly use information technologies will help improve medical care.  The real question is, and will be, will the health care system effectively use technology to improve care and foster the humanism inherent in care or will the technology itself define a new system which is driven only off the zeal for efficiency and the best science of disease, but which leaves the hands-on humanistic and spiritual tradition of medicine in the dustbin of history. 

When I was in college, in the late 1960s, early 1970s, I had a friend who was getting a degree in the early field of computer engineering and programming.  He was a strange sort of guy who used to rail about the evils of computers.  He would talk about how they were actually imbued with malign intentions and evil spirits.  When asked why then he wanted to go into computer science, he would answer that someone had to control them in order to defeat the evil that was inherent in them.  In today’s world, and especially in today’s world of computers in medicine, I wonder if he wasn’t on to something. 

Certainly in popular culture the ideas of computers having an evil dimension and even dominating humans is examined both by those at the cutting edge of science and by those in the arts.  Physicist Steven Hawking has been one of the more vocal scientists who have warned of the risk that computers, via the use of artificial intelligence, could, “spell the end of the human race.”  Bill Gates and Elon Musk have also voiced their concerns in calling for more research on the potential for computers to learn to “think” for themselves and evolve themselves and where this could potentially lead including the possibility of information technology controlling human action.  As recently as June of this year, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, created media buzz by declaring that in the future, humans will be the pets of computers.   Science fiction has explored this concept for many years, with Isaac Asimov inventing the “Three Laws of Robotics” which aimed to protect mankind from the control of machines.  He then proceeded to build stories to show the inadequacy of the three laws in protecting humans and humanity.    As written by Asimov the three laws are:

“A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.  A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. 

The laws all stress the need to help men and women however Asimov’s stories show the reality of unintended consequences when good intentions can cause bad even evil results.  The reality is that when human arrogance believes that control can be total over the world around us (including the technology we create) the results often can prove us wrong in painful ways.  In medical care, this may prove to be especially dangerous as the results are highly personal and could be life-threatening.  Medicine is filled with low probability, high consequence events and information technology is invariably designed for populations, rather than the black swans – the unpredictable, rare but high impact event that can radically affect a person’s life.  Our systems approaches to date have also not taken into account the values, beliefs and social structures that we all live under. 

While the three laws of robotics do not directly address the same issues as the triple aim, the idea that certain hard wired goals, or laws can address all eventualities, and all permutations, is similar.  Both the triple aim and the three laws of robotics are inherently good: however any laws developed by man that are ultimately taken as holy writ and hard wired into computer systems, can be interpreted in such a way as to create pain for individuals.  In medicine, one of the dangers of technology being programmed to address certain components of the triple aim is that while service and quality are implied in the first aim, it is not stated clearly who defines either service or quality.  More and more we have studies that show that the “system” definitions as determined by those who design and run the health care organizations are different than physician and nurse definitions which are different than patient definitions.  A certain decision algorithm, being driven by information technology, may not support the goals of population health and lower per capita cost but, due to the unusual nature of the disease and of the patient’s psychosocial situation, may help that person in need. 

David Shaywitz, one of the best thinkers in health care and a blogger for Forbes, recently wrote a short blog entitled, “First, We Devalued Doctors; Now, Technology Struggles to Replace Them” in which he describes  the challenge of trying to have technology drive personalized medicine which depends so much on knowing the psychosocial dynamics of each person being treated.  He writes, “I realized there was something that seemed a little sad about the idea of developing extensive market analytics and fancy digital engagement tools to simulate what the best doctors have done for years – deeply know their patients and suggest treatments informed by this understanding.”


I agree.  It is sad that society may be abdicating the sacred trust of knowing the person to a computer rather than to a caring professional.  But it is not too late to change the new paradigm being written.  We can effectively find a way to control the computer and use the capabilities inherent in that technology to augment the humanism of the professional helping those who are in need.  We can prevent a purely technological approach to the triple aim going the way of the three laws of robotics in literature and being the fodder for tragic stories of individual pain.  It will take new information technology and new approaches that are carefully designed to foster humanism, as defined by the patient and the family.  Caring can be improved if we learn how to use information technology in a way that supports and helps our professionals focus more on understanding each patient as a unique individual and not just a set of pathologies.    My strange friend from forty years ago had confidence that he could fight the inherent evil of computers and I too am confident that we take harness the power of technology to improve the professionals’ ability to care for patients.