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News & Trends - MedTech & Diagnostics

No substitute for good bedside manner, according to Dr Kerr

Health Industry Hub | March 9, 2020 |

MedTech News: In this age of rampant and rapidly changing technology, there’s simply no substitute for a clinician with a good bedside manner.

That’s the message from Dr Fiona Kerr, who will be speaking at the Australian Private Hospitals Association’s upcoming 39th APHA National Congress (APHA Congress).

Dr Kerr, founder and director of the NeuroTech Institute, has a diverse list of qualifications including cognitive neuroscience, complex systems engineering, anthropology and psychology.

Her address at the APHA Congress will touch on a range of issues, including the use of technology in medicine and the importance of simple, everyday human contact.

“I’ll be talking about the neurophysiology of human interaction and the importance of touch and eye contact when it comes to healing,” she said.

“For hospital administrators, it’s important to know how your staff interact with patients. And the clinicians who have empathy for their patients do actually increase that patient’s capability to heal.

“I’ll also be talking about the good use of technology in medicine.”

According to Dr Kerr, balancing the use of tech with human interaction was the key to improved outcomes for patients.

“There is some amazing new technology out there that has the potential to transform medicine, it’s phenomenal,” she said.

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“But doctors will never be replaced by robots. That human interaction – it’s like a super power that doctors don’t even know they have.

“When we interact face-to-face, there’s a chemical reaction in our brains and our bodies. It’s a blast of chemicals that can change our mood, our health and our stress levels.

“It’s something that we can measure – people who are shown empathy and compassion are more likely to get better and make better health decisions.”

Dr Kerr added advances in telehealth and telemedicine had been “amazing” for many Australians, particularly those in rural and remote areas. However, that need for human contact was still there.

“If I’m sitting across from you, face-to-face, there’s a connection between our neural pathways in the brain and I’m more likely to take on anything you might tell me – for example about taking medicine, or changing habits,” she said.

“Giving information through a screen, I’m likely to do things a lot slower.

“Telehealth for remote areas can work amazingly well and there are some areas where it’s really great, for example group discussions or counselling.

“If I’m having a telehealth consultation with my doctor and I’m on my own, there’s evidence that I would be less likely to tell the doctor about new symptoms I’m experiencing.

 “But if there is a local nurse there, who you know and trust, then all that changes. Direct human engagement plus telehealth, is the best of both worlds for people in those remote areas.”

Dr Kerr said even in our daily lives, direct human contact, particularly eye contact, was vital.

“When we’re nervous or stressed, we look to someone we trust and we look them in the eye, as a form of reassurance,” she said.

“We see it with parents and children, people with their partners – you look them directly in the eye, it increases the connection and you feel better.

“That works in a health setting too. If I have a nurse who looks me in the eye, maybe takes my pulse with their fingers, or just sits with me for five minutes if I am stressed, that really changes everything.

“My cortisol level drops, my adrenaline drops, the level of oxytocin increases – it changes what’s physiologically happening in my body.”

Dr Kerr is an advisor to the robotics industry, the health sector, the Global Centre for Modern Ageing, Finland’s national artificial intelligence program, and defence organisations both in the USA and Australia.

“There’s some fascinating research being done in Finland as to what turns on in the brain when you look directly at a person, as opposed to looking at someone on a screen,” she said.

“There are things in your brain that simply never turn on if you’re looking at someone on a screen. It helps if you know them already, but it’s not exactly the same. The emotional response is not nearly as good. That physical presence helps with synchronicity.”

Dr Kerr added what she was really looking for in her work and her research, was a “quality partnership between tech and humans”.

“For health administrators, it’s about thinking wisely and maximising the use of tech while still remaining human-centric,” she said.

“At the end of the day, there really is no substitute for a good bedside manner,” she said.

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