Hybrid Healthcare: Helpful or Harmful?

I see digital humanities as how the humanities engage digitally with the world, not just using data to acquire information about the humanities. In today’s Big Data world, medicine, health, and wellness often come to you. Tailored ads on Facebook display pages devoted to in-home workouts. A plethora of apps exist that paradoxically allow you to use your phone to escape the ubiquity of technology’s demands, such as Calm and InsightTimer; the former features soothing images and mantras, and the latter provides meditations tailored to specific needs, including “dealing with addiction” and “emotional healing.”[1] Many hospitals now allow VirtualVisits, wherein patients and providers can essentially FaceTime appointments. While all of these applications are useful for parents of young children, people with disabilities, people with off-hour or overloaded schedules, usw., they all also lack the sensorily rich aspect of in-person, in-nature experience.

My research focuses on digital social capital, specifically, how diasporas digitally maintain connections with their culture via Facebook, YouTube, and other social media and videosharing platforms. At the core of such research is emotional and cultural sustainability and wellness. People want to know that there are others like them, others who sing, dance, laugh, act in the way that they do, even if the culture is geographically and chronologically distant. However, the methodology can be applied to – and seen in – more broad examinations of the Internet’s role in daily life. The United Kingdom announced in January 2018 that a new Minister of Loneliness would be appointed to help combat an epidemic of staggering proportions. Ceylan Yeginzu writes, “Government research has found that about 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.”[2] As an example, Yeginzu cites Briton Carol Jenkins’ use of a loneliness-themed Facebook group that provides support, encouragement, and coping mechanisms to members of various ages across the U.K.; ironically, participation in said group has encouraged Jenkins to go outside their home more. The maintenance of social clubs, bowling alleys, and board game nights are a large part of whole-person healthcare, for loneliness can have wide-ranging affects. As the minister’s position develops, social media initiatives should serve as an adjunct to in-person opportunities.

Lastly, Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015), decries the deleterious effects that digital omnipresence can have on various aspects of human interactions. In one instance, she details the societal benefits achieved as a result of recent technological developments, yet cautions that the rising generation of medical professionals, as digital natives, does not know a world where an answer is not Googleable. She cites instructors’ concerns that residents are frequently not adept in interpersonal relations that allow the whole patient to be studied and seen. The book jacket to Reclaiming Conversation notes, “We are forever elsewhere. But to empathize, to grow, to love and be loved, to take the measure of ourselves or another, to fully understand and engage with the world around us, we must be in conversation.” We live in a hybrid world, a world in which life is simultaneously lived and performed online and in person. We must work to maintain homeostasis between today’s way of life and the way that life is when no technology is available.

[1] “Meditations.” InsightTimer, https://insighttimer.com/meditation-app. Accessed 21 January 2018.

[2] Yeginzu, Ceylan. “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness.” The New York Times. 17 January 2018.https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html


Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Amanda. As a historian of eighteenth-century medicine in which 'virtual' medicine was regularly practiced, I have long found the rise of online consultations fascinating. Physicians in this period only dealt with the patient's interior; their knowledge of theory allowed them to recommend the best courses of treatment for sufferers. (Surgeons, in contrast, dealth with the body's exterior.) This posed a number of challenges, chiefly that there were no technologies to look or hear inside the living body at this point! Apart from looking at excretions or possibly the exterior physical state (pulse, skin colour, etc.), the only thing that physicians had to go on were the patients' narratives. Good listening was crucial to their practice.

A new trend of medicine was also occurring in the eighteenth century: consultation by letter. In recent years, there has been a lot of good work written on this system. e.g. several people have written on various facets of Samuel Tissot's practice (e.g. Micheline Louis-Courvoisier to name only one), while Wayne Wild looked at several examples. There are also some medical correspondence projects, such as The Cullen Project and Sloane Letters Project (my own).

What has long struck me is how good patients needed to be at communicating their suffering, whether in person or--more particularly--by letter. And eighteenth-century patients actually had a much better language of pain than we do today. Although I'm very glad to be born in the age of modern medicine, the one thing that earlier physicians had going for them was their skill in listening closely to patients. Arguably, the 'virtual' representation of the past, such as letter-writing or non-physical examinations, helped to foster clearer communication about bodies and illnesses. If so, could the shift towards virtual communication today actually help to promote better doctor-patient dialogue? How can we use the shift to train physicians to be better communicators? (As opposed to assuming that the 'new'--or not so new--methods will undermine it altogether.)

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