Live-link hospital robot delivers death prognosis

Family of Ernest Quintana was angered that a doctor used a robot’s live video screen to say he could do nothing else for the dying patient. His granddaughter says using the machine lacked compassion. That, and a whole lot more.

Annalisia Wilharm expected a doctor to enter her grandfather’s hospital room at Permanente Medical Center in Fremont, Calif. Instead, she told CNN, she saw a nurse wheel in a robot with a physician delivering the news via a video screen. She didn’t know the doctor or where he was when he recommended a morphine drip for 78-year-old Ernest Quintana, who died the next day.

Wilharm told CNN: “We knew that we were going to lose him. Our point is the delivery (of the news). There was no compassion.”

The hospital issued a statement noting the video technology allowed a live conversation to take place and that a nurse was in the room to explain how the machine functioned. The hospital reportedly does not encourage the use of technology for patient-doctor interactions and acknowledged the incident fell short of the family’s expectations.

Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford, 2018) has prophesied increasing use of robots in medicine, noting that they can assist physicians with procedures. However, use of a live video link through a robot-appearing machine is neither compassionate nor practical when terminal prognoses are delivered.

The theme of Interpersonal Divide is based in part on the philosophy of French-Maltese social critic Jacques Ellul: Technology changes everything it touches, without its self being changed much at all. Relying on a nurse to explain the technology makes that person an IT rather than medical expert.

Finally, it doesn’t matter that the doctor delivered the news via a live link because the medium in this case was the message. The robot-looking machine asserted its presence in McLuhan fashion.

That’s the lesson for Permanente Medical Center.

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