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Nurses fire back in the algorithm wars

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 21, 2014 11:26 AM

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For a while now, algorithms have been making their way into medical care: nurses and doctors enter vital signs and symptoms, and a computer churns out a diagnosis, or recommends a treatment. There are plenty of virtues to data-driven medicine, but also some notable downsides. We value a good bedside manner in our medical professionals, which a computer doesn't have, and there's also the feeling that the manifestations of disease are too complex to ever be captured reliably in a formula.

As you might expect, registered nurses are among the most vocal critics of so-called "computer care." In May, National Nurses United launched a campaign warning patients about the dangers of "unproven medical technology." The campaign's spots are meant to be funny, in a discomforting kind of way. In a YouTube video, a hippyish computer tech named Steve punches symptoms into a computer console called FRANK, which diagnoses a middle-aged man named Mr. Smith as "pregnant." In a radio ad, a bland but cocksure computer voice tells a man named Mr. Miller, who's complaining that he can't breathe, "oh we have something better than nurses, algorithms!" As Mr. Miller's gasps intensify, the computer jovially spits out diagnoses (gout! bronchitis!) until a woman rushes in and says, "Stay calm Mr. Miller, you’re in a real nurse’s hands now."

The real bad guys in the ads are less the computers themselves, and more the penny-pinching hospital administrators and biotech CEOs who push them. Still, as plainly indispensable as nurses are, it can't feel great to have to justify your profession by picking fights with a computer program.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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