Social Impacts

One of the greatest social concerns regarding medical technology is its cost versus benefit. Medical technology increases the cost of medicine making it more difficult for people with low incomes to afford quality care. There is the criticism that reliance on machine technology to produce objective measures and reduce potential liability results in greater cost to the patient. At the same time, there is an increasing consensus among citizens in Europe and the United States that it is the obligation of society to provide health care for citizens. Medicare and Medicaid are two examples of programs that were created by the U.S. Government to subsidize the cost of health care for seniors and low income families.

Another concern is that medical technology enlarges the physician’s knowledge of disease, but it also creates a dependence upon machines and laboratory experts. This creates the risk of making medical judgments based solely on technical data without allowing for the possibility of error or considering the patient’s views. Doctors who have an overdependence on chemical laboratory tests or x-rays for diagnostic purposes without regard to their relevance may actually be putting the patient at greater risk. The emphasis on what diagnosis the technology provides rather than what the patients says or the physician’s professional judgment results in potential division between doctor and patient. The overall consequence is that the physician spends less time with patients, but requires greater amounts of data for an accurate diagnosis at higher cost. Nonetheless, concerns in the medical community regarding the risks of over-reliance on medical technology have not changed the practice of depending on it.

Precision in medical diagnosis hinges on three characteristics: the consistency or stability of the phenomena (disease or illness) being measured, the intrinsic accuracy of the measure or test used (also known as repeatability), and the ability of the observer (physician or technician) to accurately record and interpret the data (known as reproducibility). Medical technology has improved the repeatability of the measures used to diagnose and treat illness. However, new diseases and illness continue to wage war successfully against humankind (e.g., acquired immune deficiency (AIDS), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, cancer, flu, and the common cold). Their persistence indicates the powerlessness of the use of medical technology to address unpredictable or unstable ailments. The use of medical technology has improved the accuracy (reproducibility) of medical diagnosis, but it has not eliminated human error as evidenced by the continuing and sometimes tragic medical mistakes.Technology will always be grounded in the people who use it and the medical systems in which it is applied.