My name is Ally Copley and I am going to be a fourth year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I am getting my degree in Medical Anthropology and also studying Medicine, Literature, and Culture. This summer I am interning for ISTUD, helping with research projects as well as promoting the summer interludes.

“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity.”  – Hippocrates

The rise of artificial intelligence is no secret, with many sectors utilizing this transformative technology to enhance efficiency, accuracy, and innovation. The healthcare sector is no exception, for even from the earliest speculations of computers developing a form of intelligence, scholars have pondered the possibility of this application in providing more effective care. As we have seen throughout the history of medicine, advancements in computer technologies have brought remarkable strides to diagnostic capabilities and patient care- evidenced by imaging tools such as CT and MRI which have given us extraordinary insight into the inner workings of the human body.

Simultaneously, the rise of medical humanities and narrative medicine as a framework for providing compassionate and holistic patient care has sparked significant discussions on both the potential benefits and concerns surrounding the integration of artificial intelligence in healthcare. Those in favor of integrating this model have argued for the potential of artificial intelligence in elevating the skills of physicians as well as their ability to offer empathetic care. Given the vulnerabilities within our healthcare system, the call for new technologies makes artificial intelligence a more pressing topic, and the humanistic effects AI has on patients and healthcare providers mark this as a significant area of research within the humanities.

When discussing the integration of artificial intelligence within medicine, it is important to first understand that computers mediating human interaction within healthcare is not a new concept. Stanley Reiser, in Medicine and the Reign of Technology discussed how technological advancements in medicine have not only altered our way of diagnosis, but have also altered the relationship between the physician and patient and thus the systems of medical care and treatment (Reiser 1978, 221).  Revolutionary inventions such as the stethoscope and electrocardiograph, while extremely useful, have seemed to produce a barrier between doctors and patients.

Further, Reiser’s concern lies not only within this relationship between patients and physicians but also in the diagnosis being produced from using these methods. He explains that the rise of technology has endangered judgments based on patients’ perceptions and feelings, replacing them with objective evidence provided by mechanical and electronic devices. In this sense, diagnosis based on technological procedures and imaging is becoming the focal point of medical care, potentially overshadowing patient narratives and diminishing the importance of their individual experiences as relevant medical information.

In light of these concerns, it is possible for artificial intelligence to significantly contribute to patient care by enhancing and strengthening the patient-doctor relationship. AI’s ability to manage data and handle routine tasks alleviates administrative burdens, reducing burnout and allowing care providers to focus more directly on patient needs. One recent development is the chatbot, which offers immediate responses to a variety of questions.

Gina Kolata highlights that while chatbots were initially of interest in diagnosing and providing medical information, doctors have found them useful for improving communication with patients (Kolata 2023). By generating scripts that simplify complex medical language, chatbots can help physicians communicate more empathetically and clearly. In this way, when used thoughtfully, AI can be seen as a tool to enhance the patient experience by improving both efficiency and empathy in healthcare.

We must take note of the cognitive focus that is required by medical professionals and the compounded effect of intense medical education, which has made it difficult to exhibit compassionate language or speak in a way that is familiar to patients. Within their studies, aspiring physicians are often taught to view the patient and their condition as a problem that needs to be solved, sometimes overlooking the emotions and personal experiences that the patient brings with them.

AI can be seen as bridging this gap by providing tools and scripts that can help healthcare professionals communicate more empathetically and clearly. By using AI-generated scripts, doctors can engage with patients and utilize language in ways that better acknowledge their unique stories, emotions, and experiences that is not taught in medical education.  Building a dialogue that patients can readily comprehend promotes trust and mutual understanding, empowering patients to engage more effectively in their healthcare journey.

However, we must ask ourselves whether these chat-bots alone are sufficient to create a space where patients can truly express and share their stories in the same meaningful way as narrative medicine. While AI-generated scripts can be useful in facilitating initial connections between patient providers, is it enough to encourage patients to reveal the vulnerabilities and emotions intertwined with their illness experiences? AI and chatbots are known for their usefulness in fast reactions and instantaneous responses, but we must remain mindful of the ambiguity and complexities inherent in human experiences and patient narratives that have proved to be transformative in health and care.

Further, AI technologies can be seen as an extension of a present culture that prioritizes speed and perfection, but this algorithm may not be applicable in cases where the very imperfections and mysteries of illness are the actual facts and truths within the individual narratives patients wish to share. The richness of a patient’s story often lies in these uncertainties, which an algorithm might overlook or fail to fully understand. While AI can aid in certain aspects, it cannot replicate the depth of human connection and empathy essential for truly understanding and addressing patient experiences. True empathy and connection cannot be programmed; they are cultivated through human interaction and expressed through language and narrative.

As we continue to develop and integrate more advanced technologies, it is crucial that we evolve alongside them, harnessing AI’s potential while simultaneously emphasizing the power of genuine narrative competency. While AI can enhance efficiency and support healthcare providers, true empathy and understanding transcend algorithms and scripts. As Hippocrates wisely noted, “Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity,” exemplifying the interconnectedness of medical practice and humanistic care. Just as a stethoscope cannot function without human hands, meaningful connection and understanding in healthcare require more than AI-generated words—they must be imbued with authentic human emotion and experience.

Thus, as we integrate AI into healthcare, we must also prioritize and uphold the core values of narrative medicine, fostering relationships built on empathy, trust, and mutual respect and understanding. In working together with these innovations, we can ensure that the essence of humanity remains at the heart of health care by maintaining a balance between technological efficiency and compassionate treatment.

Citations and Useful Publications:

Kolata, G. (2023, June 14). When doctors use a chatbot to improve their bedside manner. The New York Times

Ostherr, K. (2020). Artificial Intelligence and Medical Humanities. Journal of Medical Humanities, 43(2), 211–232. doi:10.1007/s10912-020-09636-4

Reiser, S. J. (1978). Medicine and the reign of Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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