We lead digitised lives – we click more than we feel, and type more than we talk. Our entire life forms the centrespread of a digital tale enveloping the vastness of human experience. Interestingly, we have progressed along with the techno waves – replacing the physical with the digital, relying on apps that deliver food to our doorstep, clicks that promise life partners, and computational technique to manage health problems.

The medical world, too, has gone digital. Medicines have become more personalised. Communication technologies now address health problems, reward beneficial behaviours, book appointments, order online prescriptions and monitor patients remotely. These have helped healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients manage illnesses and enhance health.

Yet, is there still no desire for real conversations with real people and relish seeing real? As humans destined for human companionship, there is a need for the warmth of a friendly hug, not an emoji flashing on the faceless screen. Similarly, a patient caught in a turmoil of doubts may need desperate human contact.

Sadly, with increased connections, human lives are more disconnected than ever. The digital siren has dulled their senses and silenced the voice of humanity.

According to sociologist Barry Wellman, “people are not hooked on technology, they are hooked on each other. As the market’s need for efficiency sees technology moving us further apart, we need to explore ways that it can bring us closer together.”

The truth is we are getting lonelier – even in a seemingly seamless world.

Loneliness – a looming epidemic affecting health

Loneliness is an unpleasant experience – and if prolonged, it will link to poor mental health.
Loneliness is an unpleasant experience – and if prolonged, it will link to poor mental health.

According to psychologists, loneliness is a subjective, unpleasant experience that occurs when a person does not have the desired level of meaningful social contact.

Researchers contend that social pain is as real a sensation for us as physical pain; loneliness and rejection activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain. This, as indicated in several studies since 2015, may be the next biggest public health issue on par with obesity and substance abuse, and loneliness increases mortality risk by 26%.

In the US, loneliness affects one-fifth of the population whereas in the UK, it is prevalent among more than a third of those aged 50 and above.

Prolonged loneliness is detrimental to health, and is often linked to poor mental health. In a survey by the Mental Health Foundation, in the UK, one in ten of us feels lonely often – and 48% of people think they are getting lonelier in general. In fact, Britain is voted as the loneliness capital of Europe four years back.

People who feel disconnected have been advised to look to robots as more affordable and accessible human companions. Digital assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, may suit the elderly. Since 2003, a cute and cuddly robot seal called PARO was used as a companion bot in homes, and has been shown to reduce the residents’ feelings of loneliness.

However, the advice remains debatable in healthcare, as robots could make the patient feel more alone to face his fears. Could robots replace medical consultations? Would the distressed and sick not be deprived of the human contact that they so yearn for?

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Rethinking healthcare—bridging the digital divide

Along with clinical technology, digitised patient records have helped enhance patient care, reduce costs, and increase efficiency and security.

However, while technology has enabled better management and efficacy of health problems and risks, healthcare authorities worry that it could, at the same time, distance HCPs from those most in need of human contact.

The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has adopted the use of online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for those suffering from depression and generalised anxiety disorder. Though this online facility provides round-the-clock care, and enables patients to be less inhibited and to open up to a machine, there have been concerns that digital CBT may leave people feeling that they are pushed into the care of a lifeless app at a time when they really need to talk with a real practitioner.

Evidently, “digital healthcare is not about the technologies,” according to David McKeering, PwC Global Healthcare Markets Leader of PwC South East Asia Consulting. “It’s about new ways of solving healthcare problems, creating unique experiences for patients and accelerating healthcare providers’ growth.”

He believes that digital health initiatives rely heavily on having the right information, in the right place, at the right time, by the right clinician. Digital health should not widen the gap of health disparities for vulnerable populations and leave them behind. Inclusivity and accessibility must be prioritised, or risk making people feel lonelier and less cared for.

In the final analysis, it helps to be reminded that medicine, after all, is both a science and an art – technology alone cannot substitute the human touch. The system should be one where patients “can access effective healthcare in a way that suits their lifestyle and their pockets,” wrote Dr Steven Dodsworth, CEO at D Health, a specialist consultancy.

Undeniably, digital health is laudable as it creates sustainable healthcare. But still, in the face of these digital strides, is healthcare at risk of becoming disabling instead of enabling? MIMS

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