By Melanie Rule
Technology is a wonderful thing. It helps us with so many aspects of our personal and professional lives. We have smart phones, ipads, laptops and fitbits, all of which provide us with instant access to our emails, friends, digital memories, heart rates and step counts. Almost all the information that exists in the world is available with a few clicks of a keypad. My siblings joke that there are no robust arguments in our family anymore, as any disagreement of facts can be solved within seconds by “googling” the correct information. The answer to everything we ever want to know both at work and at home is at our fingertips. This should surely be making for a more contented, connected generation than ever before.
Sadly, the opposite is true. We are spending more hours looking down at screens than at the faces of our loved ones. Technology has changed the nature of our interactions with others to become more superficial & impersonal but at the same time more intrusive. Doctors now spend more time interacting with a computer than they do with patients. Medicine was once learnt at the bedside, whereas trainees now prepare for their exams almost exclusively by sitting at a computer. We don’t ask the patient to tell us the details of their medical history instead we access it on the electronic health record before we go to the bedside. We often don’t spend time talking to patients about their illness, we give them a printed handout & send them on their way. We type more and talk less.
Not surprisingly it can be hard to distance ourselves from technology when it is so essential to every part of our lives. Technology is how we work, our social interface, how we shop and how we organise our daily schedules. It has become harder to separate our work life from our home life as it is all connected via our digital devices and is accessible 24 hours a day.
About 2 years ago my son was asked to interview an “older person” for a school project. He chose my 90 year old grandmother who remains as sharp today as she was when she worked for one of the big banks in the 1950’s. His questions went something like this:
“Did you use i-pads when you were at school?”
“What was your favourite computer game?”
“What shows did you watch on TV?”
He seemed unable to fathom her responses, that none of these things even existed when she was his age and the interview ended with him asking incredulously, “What did you do all day?”
This was our wake up call as parents. Our kids could not even imagine a life without technology. It was time for our family to take a much needed technology holiday.
We started to make it a regular event to get off the grid. We take our camping gear and set up somewhere beyond the last bars of mobile phone reception. For days at a time we are out of contact range of the rest of the world. It is amazing how much time there is in a day when there is no email to check, no Facebook updates and no Minecraft worlds to build. Our kids climb trees, ride bikes, go exploring along the creek and invent games to play with the other kids in the campsite. We talk, read books, play boardgames, take naps and collect firewood. The world does not end because we have checked out of it for a few days, and we return refreshed and more connected to each other and the natural world in which we have immersed ourselves.
Since we started this experiment, I have made a few changes to my technology interface at home too. My phone is now on silent unless I am on call for the Emergency Department. I check in a few times a day to see if I have any urgent texts or voicemails that I need to respond to. I return text messages at the end of the day if they are not urgent. I have also removed email from my phone. To check emails from home now I have to deliberately sit at my computer and log in. We eat family meals with no technology at the dinner table. At 9pm my phone automatically switches itself onto night mode with a low backlight setting so that it becomes almost impossible to sit longer than a minute or two scanning newsfeeds. I find it much easier to sleep now that I don’t have the stimulus of a blue light late at night.
Technology has been a wonderful advance for our society but like anything with the potential for addiction we need to manage our intake of it. We need to know when to switch off. We are even seeing this issue becoming a regular feature of patient complaints in the workplace. On a busy shift when patients are waiting hours to see a doctor in the Emergency department, seeing a doctor using their mobile phone gives the impression that they are on Facebook or arranging their social life. Often the reality is that they are using an app such as a clinical calculator or checking a drug dose but it is the perception that is hard to shake.
It is also important to remember that many of our patients are not part of the digital revolution. Many new technologies that are developed will never be fully embraced by consumers who are older, less educated or of a lower socio-economic status. (1) According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, an estimated one million Australians (6%) have never accessed the internet. Older Australians who are greater than 65 years of age account for the majority of this group (71%) (2) Within most generations, the rate of internet usage is higher for those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and higher levels of formal education. With many businesses phasing out face-to-face customer service and even phone services in favour of online business, this serves to further isolate the already vulnerable groups in our society.
Technology has become obligatory in our modern day lives, however we should be careful not to let it completely replace human interaction. Human interaction is one of the main reasons why we have successfully survived as a species. Of course we should continue to embrace new technologies that enhance our lives but we should also be mindful to not let it take over the human part of our interactions, both in our personal life and in our work as a doctor.
- Using the technology acceptance model to explain how attitudes determine internet usage: The role of perceived access barriers and demographics. Constance Porter and Naveen Donthu. Journal of Business Research 59 (2006) 999-1007
- Australian Bureau of Statistics – Research Snapshots : Digital lives of older Australians. August 2016