Med Tech Report

Martin Buber, deep learning, and the still soft voice beyond the screen


Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting. – Hippocrates

The new year provides an opportunity to reflect on old things: to decide what to keep and what to toss out, to contemplate the habits to which we choose to rededicate ourselves, and those we choose to let wane. Over the last few years, while some older physicians have expressed a yearning for the comfort of paper charts, most of us have come to embrace the benefits of the electronic health record. That is a good thing. The EHR offers many advantages over paper, and, like it or not, it’s here to stay.

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik of Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik

Many younger physicians have not ever seen a paper chart. The other day I was working with a resident, admitting a patient to a nursing home. I handed her the inch-thick stack of papers that came from the hospital, and she immediately asked what we were supposed to do with it. When I explained that it was the hospital chart, she wondered aloud how she was supposed to navigate to the different sections in order to review the information. I was stupefied but understood the reason behind her question. The way we document has changed so dramatically over just the past decade. Unfortunately, without intention, the way that we chart has affected the way we relate to patients.

In 1923, the German philosopher Martin Buber published the book for which he is best known, “I and Thou.” In that book Buber says that there are two ways we can approach relationships: “I-Thou” or “I-It.” In I-It relationships, we view the other person as an “it” to be used to accomplish a purpose or to be experienced without his or her full involvement. In an I-Thou relationship, we appreciate the other person for all their complexity, in their full humanness. We acknowledge and approach the person as a unique individual who has dreams, goals, fears, and wishes that may be different than ours but to which we can still relate.

While the importance and benefits of the electronic record are clear, we must constantly remind ourselves that the EHR is a tool of care and not the goal of care. While the people we see have health needs that must be diagnosed, treated, and recorded, and their illnesses are an important part of their being, they do not define their being. Nor should they define our relationship with them. Patients agree; when surveyed about the attributes of a good physician, they regularly respond that they want their physicians to have a sense of them as people, not just patients.

Recently, I was reminded of the challenge of keeping this simple task in the forefront of care while on hospital service. I had occasion to sit and talk with one of my patients without a computer in the room. This was unusual for me, as I typically fill out the EHR as I am seeing the patient. As I listened to the individual in his gown, lying on his hospital bed and describing the symptoms that brought him to the hospital, I was reminded of the subtle pauses and nuances that occur during focused conversations, during deep listening.

We have written in previous columns about exciting applications of technology that are in the pipeline. Artificial intelligence with “deep learning” is predicted to change the way we diagnose and treat disease. Deep learning is a term that has been used to describe a type of machine analysis where data are interpreted and analyzed in layers, allowing the computer to detect patterns. In the first layer of learning, the computer may identify the way pixels of the same color form a line or a curve. In the next layer it might detect the way that curve resembles a face. Peeling away layer after layer, the computer might eventually recognize whose face is being represented. This is the type of programing that has allowed computers to interpret mammograms and retina scans, detecting patterns that represent cancer or small retinal hemorrhages. While deep learning will be the subject of much excitement over the next few years, at the start of this new year we think it is equally important be reminded of an essential quality of the excellent physician – deep listening.

Deep listening requires a lifetime of practice. We have all experienced it, both as listeners and as those being listened to. When we are in the presence of someone who is truly interested in what we are saying – in our story and in our life – we feel reaffirmed and refreshed. Regardless of the topic of our discussion, we feel a sense of trust, for we believe that the person with whom we are speaking understands us, and, in that understanding, cares about us. We have a sense that we could trust the listener with our lives.

A lifetime of practice – that is the promise of our jobs as physicians. Every time we enter the exam room we have the opportunity to carry out the sacred skill of hearing others, while trying in some way to improve their lives. With each visit we have the opportunity to perfect our craft. Chaucer, the medieval English poet, observed, “the life so short, the craft so long to learn.” It seems he borrowed that idea from a physician, Hippocrates.

Hippocrates opened his medical text with the words, “Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps,” which means, “Life is short, the art long, opportunity fleeting.” Hippocrates recognized the challenge involved in learning all that is necessary to take care of our fellow man. This challenge has only become more difficult as the quantity of information required to practice competent medicine has increased. In addition, we now need to record data into the EHR to be used for record keeping, billing, and the further advancement of knowledge. Hippocrates’ medical text continued, “The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.”

On the occasion of this New Year, it is a perfect time to reflect and rededicate ourselves to listening to our patients, to being interested in them and their stories. We just may find that in deep listening, and in the trust that comes from that singular focus, lie solutions to many of the largest problems we face in medicine today: burnout, poor adherence, and regaining the moral authority that comes with truly caring for those in need.

Dr. Skolnik is a professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and an associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Dr. Notte is a family physician and associate chief medical information officer for Abington Jefferson Health. Follow him on twitter (@doctornotte).

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