PARIS — With breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence promising to revolutionize all aspects of our lives, the field of medicine is far from immune. Radiology will be one of the first medical fields to be transformed by AI, French daily Les Echos reported earlier this month, with algorithms on the verge of being able to establish diagnoses on their own. Meanwhile, a robot in China just took the national medical exam — passing with a top score, and in one-tenth the time as the living-and-breathing doctors-to-be.

Of course, one thing a robot doctor could never do is be human — though it looks like some humans are having trouble with that, too. It turns out that doctors today are struggling with the side effects of “hypertechnicity;” that is, with all the technological advances to keep on top of, they are falling short when it comes to bedside manner and emotional support of their patients. The Swiss daily Le Temps reported this week on Alexandre Wenger, a literature professor at the University of Geneva, who is trying to combat this problem by encouraging medical students to take literature and writing courses — part of a movement called “narrative medicine” that traces its roots to Columbia University in the 1990s.

No substitute for hard science requirements

Wenger’s classes today are designed to keep medical students in touch with their humanity. For example, he has them analyze excerpts from Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, including a passage where a military doctor talks to the main character, a judge, who is dying. “By peeling it back, word by word, this excerpt lets us confront the patient’s perspective — what he understand, his feelings — in the doctor’s words,” Wenger told Le Temps.

Wenger does not suggest that medical students substitute comparative lit. courses for their hard science requirements. “If [a doctor] is getting ready to operate on me, I’d obviously prefer it if he studied surgery instead of Horace,” said Wenger.

Instead, the goal is to create a sense of balance. “A doctor has to be able to interpret [a patient’s story], to understand the meaning and the actors, in order to make a diagnosis,” said Wenger. “Care becomes the construction of a common story, where the words are a shared support.”

No doubt, an AI startup somewhere is trying to build a robot that can do that too.


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