If, in the late 70’s, cocooned under the bedclothes, you were to have switched on your transistor radio and listened via a rudimentary plastic earpiece to a popular music radio station, you may have heard the distinctive voice of Karen Carpenter urging the people of the world to telepathically call out to the occupants of any passing interplanetary craft and request that they who had been observing our earth, would make contact with mankind. Whilst we might smile inwardly at such a fanciful notion as ‘World Contact Day’, surely it is not as foolish as the ever more determined attempts we are now making to live our lives isolated form one another.
Each day too many of us wake up and say good morning to our virtual friends before driving to work accompanied only by phones, which unnervingly seem already to know our destination, and Sat Navs, which we rely on to direct our path no matter how familiar our route to work might be. We sit at desks and process electronic data and manage problems according to protocols and algorithms produced by those we do not know whilst fretting constantly for fear of censure from faceless figures of authority if we do not comply.
Our working day complete, we buy ready meals at self service checkouts, purchase fuel at ‘pay at the pump’ garages and when we are begrudgingly forced to pay for things at a till, do so with our ‘contactless’ debit cards, never once having to look anyone in the eye. On arrival home we open parcels delivered whilst we were out that contain the items we bought on line before seating ourselves in front of screens to while away the rest of our day gazing at what our individual devices have recommended for us to watch. And so we fill our lives with noise, desperate to drive away the silence of our loneliness that “like a cancer grows’ ever more deafening.
Despite the current explosion in communication, we have never been more out of reach.
Regardless of all our many contacts, we have never been more alone.
Exchanging data when we should have been sharing time, we have lost touch with those we long to be closest to.
And all of this is deemed to be progress. The use of technology is heralded as a means of enriching our lives despite the fact that our lives our most enriched by the contact we have with others. The more we free up time to spend entertaining ourselves the more we spend that time isolated and alone.
And that’s not healthy.
The Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, is particularly keen for technology to change the way we practice medicine. The truth, of course, is that it already has – and not always for the best. Though computers were once our servants, they have rapidly become our masters who control far too much of our working day, They alert us to nonexistent sepsis, urge us to undertake unnecessary investigations and insist we address matters which are of little concern to our patients – matters which, of importance only to those whose concern is to measure the measurable, serve only to hide more completely the individual behind the data of their biochemical parameters. Now that correspondence and the results of investigations are delivered to us electronically, we spend longer tied to our desk and find it harder to forge good relationships with our colleagues. And so, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, ‘Hiding in our room, safe within our womb, [we] touch no one and no one touches [us]’
Medicine has a problem for which technology is being offered as the solution despite the fact that, in large measure, it is technology that has brought about the problem that medicine is facing, We now have app based health care being heralded as the future. Leaving aside the inherent dangers of such insufficiently tested and impersonal methods of delivering patient care, such so called progress will only serve to create an even greater disconnect between those who seek to help and those who need that assistance.
As GPs, meaningful personal contact with our patients is the highlight of our working day, the foundation on which General Practice is built. And sadly, in this increasingly lonely world, for too many of our patients, that contact with us is the highlight of theirs. We must not give this up. App based medical care is a retrograde step we may not live to regret. It is one more nail in the coffin that we seem determined to prematurely build for ourselves so we can lead lifeless lives utterly alone.
We must resist this ‘contactless’ existence. It’s not good for our patients and it’s not good for medical professionals either.
The truth is that we are meant to live in community, leaning on others as others lean on us. Technology brings many benefits but all too often with the consequence that people become surplus to requirement and are left more and more alone. The Beatles asked: ‘All the lonely people – where do they all come from?’ Perhaps the answer is obvious. Our iThis and iThat may be cool but, as the Beatles suggested, they may just be making the world a little colder.
Loneliness is bad for us – a contagion spread by our drive to be contactless.
General Practice, as all of life, is a team game – resilience doesn’t come by going it alone. To stay resilient we need to stay in touch – with each other and with our patients.
Perhaps the idea of a World Contact Day isn’t such a foolish one after all.
To read ‘On not remotely caring’, click here