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Ana Mota

The Future of Health: Man vs Machine?

The pandemic has exponentially accelerated digital access to health: from video appointments and telemedicine to online diagnosing via the reading of biometric data. Insurance has looked to online medicine as a way to support customers during the pandemic but, in the future, would that be the only possible course of action? 

There is no doubt that using these facilities was key to bridge gaps and mitigate severe restrictions placed on access to clinics and hospitals, considering how strong of a priority it became to combat SARS-CoV-2 through all human and physical means available. It is now inarguable that online medicine is here to stay and has become indispensable, given the advantages it affords: greater convenience, ease of access and flexible schedules; no travel or wait times, no exposure to other patients, and thus avoidance of infection. In many cases, it also costs less per use. 

The insurance sector has been one of the main drivers of access to online medicine, facilitating quick responses to urgent matters, namely in tracking Covid-19-related situations and many others for which physical travel to a clinic or ER would be advised against, and could be handled through remote sessions. Among the main uses cases is paediatric care and counselling/therapy appointments. The latter are of great relevance. A large number of people experienced anxiety, deepened by the pandemic and the uncertainty (which we have yet to overcome) concerning what the virus might bring into our lives.  It is estimated that the use of telemedicine resources more than doubled during the pandemic. Both old and new users contributed to such growth. 

However, we must be realistic and, while acknowledging that virtual means have improved patient access to healthcare, they cannot wholly replace in-person care. For a number of reasons, but above all for the lack of human contact. 

It doesn't matter how advanced technology is. You can read diagnostic data on blood pressure, diastolic function, diabetes, and more, but we’re still a long way from being able to conduct all observation digitally. Some tests require physical contact — abdominal examinations, for example, require palpation; gynaecological examinations likewise require actual touch. Another practice where you can hardly substitute for the presence of an actual professional is physical therapy. Although you already can conduct remote sessions guided by a physical therapist if you own certain pieces of equipment, one might well ask — could those sessions actually be effective? The truth is that muscle manipulation, including therapeutic massage, can hardly be done by machines. 

Truth be told, beyond restrictions, which are still there and may remain there in the short term, the hardest thing to overcome is emotional limitations. A camera makes everything more impersonal. Physical closeness, so essential to patient comfort and welfare, which also allows practitioners to pick up on their emotional status and respond accordingly, is absent.  

As technology evolves and perfects robotics, let us ask ourselves: to what extent do we want to be assessed, treated and, ultimately, advised by machines or robots?   

When it comes to diagnosing and treating illness, man-machine interaction may not become an issue. Rather, a facilitating circumstance. In my opinion, another major issue originates with mental health. For a brief spot of support, a remote session may prove effective, as a one-time, sporadic stop-gap. For in-depth treatment over the long term where psychic factors constitute the dominant concern, the physical closeness of a professional would be indispensable, be it on therapy appointments or when more serious circumstances arise leading, possibly, to hospitalization. And where does that leave the comfort of a hug? 

Health professionals will continue to complement their efforts with technological means, but will not neglect the fundamental role of empathy, compassion, experience and decision-making abilities. The truth is, despite growing use of technology to improve healthcare services, many still fear human beings will be replaced with machines.  

The take-up of new technologies always comes with great challenge. For me, the greatest challenge will be how to leverage the benefits of digital health without losing our human touch.  


by Ana Mota, Employee Benefits Managing Director, MDS Portugal
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