Each year, new developments in healthcare technology are unveiled. Physicians boast on their websites that they have the latest equipment and technologies, and patients flock to hospitals and clinics that promise the latest advances in technology. “New” is often equated with “better” in American society, particularly when it comes to healthcare, and also when it comes to technology. These advances in medical technology are often very beneficial because they can save patient lives, save time, or even save money. However, physicians and healthcare administrators must take care to use the technologies ethically to avoid harming patients instead of helping them.
Perhaps the simplest application for healthcare technology is the advent of electronic records. Electronic records are often heralded as a large benefit to busy hospitals and clinics because they help office workers and physicians alike keep track of patients in an efficient manner. For example, instead of having to order copies of a patient’s medical records, a specialist can pull up their entire medical history on their computer. This saves time and money because the physician knows which tests the patient has undergone and can proceed accordingly rather than wait for the records or redo them. In addition, electronic health records allow hospitals and clinics to identify patients who may benefit from clinical trials, or who need to undergo certain tests of examinations.
However, electronic records can present ethical problems. When records are kept online or in a database, there is always the possibility of an information leak that can lead to a devastating invasion of privacy. In addition, electronic health records can actually make transferring information between physicians more complicated at times, especially when the physician who needs the medical records works in a different health system than the patient’s general practitioner. Finally, the question of ownership has emerged. Patient advocacy groups argue that the patients own their own health records, but many hospitals argue that since the data is contained on their record systems, they own the data. Many healthcare providers charge patients for requesting copies of the data be transmitted to another clinic or hospital.
There is no doubt that advances in medical technology saves lives. Healthcare technology makes diagnosing and treating conditions faster, more accurate, and more comfortable for the patient. However, critics also question some of the uses of this technology. For example, tests using new technologies are sometimes more expensive rather than less, and many physicians order these expensive tests without considering the impact the cost will have on the patient and the insurer. This can actually drive up the cost of healthcare, as does the purchase of the newest equipment. These costs get passed along to the patient and to the taxpayer in the case of patients on Medicaid and Medicare. In addition, advanced technologies can keep patients alive when their quality of live is minimal, which not only creates the obvious ethical issues, but adds expense to the patient’s family as well as to taxpayers if the patient relies on Medicaid or Medicare.
Mandatory Tests and Defensive Medicine
Another ethical problem that new technology can create is that it drives up the standard of care past the point of practicality. For example, patients who exhibit symptoms of certain conditions, such as AIDS, must undergo mandatory tests to help manage their symptoms. However, in many cases, these tests are not necessarily to the patient’s benefit. Instead, they are a move made by physicians to cover every base to avoid malpractice suits. Because newer tests are often more expensive, they can drive up the cost of healthcare.
It would be short-sighted and inaccurate to state that new advances in medical technology do not help patients; the technologies, when used judiciously, almost always help the patient. However, physicians and other administrators should use the technologies as they are needed and only when they are called for to avoid driving up costs. In addition, electronic records should be carefully secured and should benefit patients rather than add to their cost of healthcare.
About the Guest Author
Stan Leventhal is a medical researcher and writer from San Diego, California. He contributes regularly to blogs related to advances in healthcare and has written a very informative piece at The Best Online Degree Programs in Medical Informatics.