Health leaders from across the country gathered at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix last week to discuss technology’s role in improving care. Entitled “Transforming American Healthcare over the Next Decade,” it brought together experts from the federal government, industry and academics. All of them pressed for improvements in medical record-keeping, diagnostic testing, and the creation of new drugs.

The experts said that health care is still in its infancy when it comes to information and technology development. Information technology is used in every other industry to streamline processes (financial to mechanical), which allows things to get done more efficiently.

I listened to a professor from Johns Hopkins suggest that to meet today’s needs and quality assurance requirements, doctors need to “improve our black bag technology.” He said most of the instruments in a doctor’s traditional black bag (stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, opthalmoscope, reflex hammer) have been there for a 100 years. The professor said we could improve our diagnostic efficiency by putting handheld computers and ultrasound devices into our black bags. He said it would take half a year to master the instruments, but it would increase our therapeutic impact.

I have no quarrel with using new technology to improve efficiency and quality of care, as long as we also spend time talking to patients. We will magnify our impact just by talking to patients and making a real connection with them. Sadly, I see the movement toward technology and efficiency in healthcare being used as a justification to spend less time with patients. We need to balance the progress in our technology with similar progress in the humanity with which it is delivered. We do not need more hand-held devices in our black bags . . . we need to be holding more hands. We need to be talking to patients, not just probing and manipulating them.

To “transform American healthcare” is to take time to connect with patients at a soulful level. Most of the chronic diseases (also the costliest, like heart disease, lung disease, diabetes), will improve if we can get people to change their behaviors. If a doctor can inspire patients to believe they can become the principal agents in maintaining their health, they will change their unhealthy behaviors and eat better, exercise more, stress less, smoke and drink less. To inspire requires more than a new device; patients must trust your heart. If patients trust not only the way you practice, but also your heart, you can help them become the principal agents on their healing journey.

To “transform American healthcare” is to focus on prevention not intervention. If we build trusting, healing relationships, we will improve quality care and clinical outcomes. Let’s improve black bag technology by holding more hands than devices.