Dr. Robot

by Conrad Amenta

New software is industrializing medicine by turning doctors into data entry clerks—and making them suicidally depressed in the process.

In more ways than one, medicine is dying.

A 2015 article in JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that almost a third of medical school graduates become clinically depressed upon beginning their residency training. That rate increases to almost half by the end of their first year.

Between 300 and 400 medical residents commit suicide annually, one of the highest rates of any profession, the equivalent of two average-sized medical school classes. Survey the programs of almost any medical conference and you’ll find sessions dedicated to contending with physician depression, burnout, higher-than-average divorce rates, bankruptcy, and substance abuse.

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, medicine should be difficult. No other profession requires such rigorous and lengthy training, such onerous and ongoing scrutiny, and the continuous self-interrogation that accompanies saving or failing to save lives.

But today’s crisis of physician burnout is the outcome of more than just a job that’s exceptionally difficult. Medicine is undergoing an agonizing transformation that’s both fundamental and unprecedented in its 2500-year history. What’s at stake is nothing less than the terms of the contract between the profession and society.

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Conrad Amenta has written about play for Kill Screen magazine and music for Cokemachineglow. He lives in San Francisco where he works as a health policy researcher.