Technology Is Changing Healthcare, But You Can’t Program Empathy


One of the most fascinating, and arguably reassuring, parts of my discussion with Melissa Hall (Head of Skills and Workforce at ATEED) last month was her observation that empathy is one of the most powerful and under-acknowledged soft skills that millennials possess – and it’s a skill that will bode well for us as the future of work continues to evolve. Melissa explained that while design skills and lateral-thinking are both examples of creativity, creativity can also mean cultural intelligence, being adaptive to change, and the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. And it turns out she’s not the only professional to think this; the single-most common theme that came up again and again in my conversations with TTC readers working in healthcare was the intangible, undefinable and invaluable power of empathy. Sarah Jones, TTC reader and registered doctor in New Zealand explained it this way: “As a doctor well-versed in this industry, even I can remember the nurses who have cared for me when I’ve fallen sick. Just last week, all a patient wanted was for me to hold his hand after his operation. Technology will never replace a kind word, a smile, or a touch on the shoulder of someone at their most vulnerable. We need to ensure that empathy is central to medicine; it’s not about “treating” patients, it’s about caring for them.”

Eager to prove Melissa and Sarah’s theories were, in fact, right on the money, I went out into the Internet void (and The Twenties Club’s Instagram DMs) in search of evidence. And the results were both moving and deeply affecting. Kiwi entrepreneur Aliesha Staples, founder of vRemedies, is responsible for creating the world’s first “patient preparation virtual reality experience” designed to introduce children to typically daunting medical procedures like CT scans before doing the real thing. “StaplesVR was originally asked to look into running a programme focused on non-invasive procedures like CT scans, and how we might use VR technology to show children the procedures in an immersive way, as well as helping hospital Play Specialists determine whether a child would require sedation for the procedure. Ultimately we created a full six degree-of-freedom VR experience and that’s how vRemedies was born! Since then, we have also developed a 360-degree video using virtual reality for children who had been in hospital for an extended period of time and had little access to the outside world – we believed the experience would improve recovery time by giving them a break from hospital surroundings.”

There’s no escaping the debate around technology disrupting the healthcare sector, but that disruption isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and often it’s not a disruption at all, but rather a place where human skills like empathy and technology intersect. Aliesha agrees, “Empathy is a powerful emotion, and when combined with VR it can change behaviours and mindsets – if we can expose children to these rooms, sounds and machines in a safe environment and then evaluate that they’re capable of remaining calm throughout the process, we have then enabled the Play Specialist to determine that child’s need for sedation. Keep in mind that an MRI scan costs, on average, 300 per cent more when sedation is required.”

Chantelle Bartlett has worked as a pharmacist in communities throughout New Zealand, Australia and the UK, and has witnessed the benefits of working with robots to dispense medication as a means of easing her workload, “However there are often technical errors with the robot, meaning we have to double check their work (tasks like filling blister packs of medication), before giving them to patients – thus defeating the purpose! The reality is, this job is so much more than prescribing; we have a lot of patients who come into our store simply because they want someone to talk to.” Alannah Cheers, a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit, had a similar sentiment: “The things I get thanked for by my patients are holding their hand or explaining their medication to them – ironically, it’s not the fifty infusions I made sure were running correctly to keep them alive. Diagnosis and treatment cannot be void of humanity.”

In fact, it was Tim Carr’s humanity that ultimately led him to launch myRelfection, a New Zealand company designing 3D printed breast prostheses to support women who have undergone mastectomies, just like his partner Fay Corbett did after being diagnosed with breast cancer. After Corbett had her left breast removed, Carr saw the psychological impact this had on her, as well as how flawed most prostheses are; they were uncomfortable against the skin, often sat too high in bras, moved around, and ran the risk of gaping from a patient’s chest. They were also made of heavy silicon, meaning they didn’t mould to the scars or large amounts of skin that sat above her new chest wall. Carr, who had a background in 3D printing, set about creating customised breast prostheses that would help his partner and thousands of other women recover a sense of themselves. As he told Idealog“The goal behind myReflection is to reconcile what a woman sees in the mirror with what’s in her mind’s eye.” Technology was, and still is, central to Carr’s mission; for those who have had a mastectomy the method begins with taking between 170 and 200 images of a client’s chest and torso to create a 3D mould using photogrammetry, and for women who have had a double mastectomy they can refer to myReflection’s extensive breast library, but the catalyst behind myReflection was an empathic one. Carr believed that Fay deserved a new breast that looked and felt like her old one – not something that felt like a lumpy hard rock or computer mouse every time she hugged a loved one.

The stories and professionals featured in this article taught me that this discussion shouldn’t be an “either/or” scenario. It’s not about technology or empathy. Science or humanity. It’s about the divine confluence between the two that is fast-becoming the foundation of success for innovation in healthcare, and for our generation and those that follow it’s something to be excited about.

To learn more about the future of work in Auckland and how you can get “future ready”, click here.

Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club
This post is proudly supported by Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development