Dr. Rene Laennec is credited as being the inventor of the stethoscope. As legend has it, Laennec was trained to practice a medical process called percussion to examine his patients. This practice involved tapping on patients’ bodies and carefully listening to the sounds that echoed back. With some patients, however, percussion was hard to implement. For instance, larger patients presented a unique challenge for doctors since it was difficult to hear sounds through layers of skin and fat. It was in this situation that the stethoscope finds it origin. Examining a larger patient, Laennec reportedly rolled up a notebook to better hear the sounds. In 1819, Laennec offered this account of his discovery in a medical journal:
“I was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.”
Laennec’s simple cylindrical creation helped the percussive sounds be better heard and allowed him to better diagnose his patients’ ailments. The discovery led him to intensively examine different designs and to research how the sounds he heard related to different medical conditions. His study led to the creation of the modern day stethoscope and propelled it as a standard medical device used by doctors worldwide. Laennec’s invention undoubtedly saved lives and improved the practice and science of the medical field.
One could argue that Laennec was a great inventor and that he made significant contributions to medicine. But let’s dig a little deeper. Besides improving the way that medicine was conducted as field, Laennec also dramatically changed the way doctors interacted with their patients. To practice percussion, doctors would place their ears against patients’ backs, chests and abdomens. This close contact made seeing a doctor an intensively personal interaction. To further diagnose patients, doctors also conducted lengthy interviews with patients to try to uncover larger ailments and issues at play. Through these interviews, doctors got to know their patients and how they lived their lives. The stethoscope, however, created a distance between the doctor and patient, both literally and figuratively. Doctors could listen to a patient’s heart without placing an ear against them. Doctors could also diagnose some ailments without asking patients a single question. While the technology provided amazing benefits, it also significantly changed the way doctors interacted with their patients and dramatically altered how medicine was practiced.
So, what’s the point? For me, the big takeaway from this story is that we tend to focus on what technology adds to a situation. When a new app or device is introduced, we often can easily see how it can benefit our lives without really seeing the potentially negative impacts that could occur. In every instance of some new technology being introduced, however, there are both gains and losses. The story of the stethoscope provides one example. We can easily see how the device aided doctors’ work, but it also significantly changed how doctors interacted with patients.
Let me provide another example. I have a friend who has been deployed overseas several times. He serves in the military and returned recently from a deployment to Afghanistan. In previous deployments, he would send letters to his wife and children and would receive ones from them. Upon his return, the letters would be assembled into a scrapbook to document the family’s journey and sacrifices.
Returning from his most recent deployment, however, my friend remarked that he hadn’t sent or received a single letter. With email and Skype, the family was in contact regularly and really didn’t need to rely on handwritten communication at all. The family had gained the comfort of more regular communication with one another but had lost the documentation that the letters had provided. As his wife commented, “you can’t really scrapbook emails or a Skype call.” Gains and losses.
Since this is a blog about education, I guess it’s time that I try to bring it back to teaching and learning. We’re constantly being inundated with new educational technologies that could improve how we deliver instruction, interact with our students and assess their learning. While I’m an advocate for using technology in our classrooms, I also want us to raise a skeptical eye to the losses that emerge from the infusion of technology. Like the stethoscope, will these technologies create “a distance” that changes how we teach and how we interact with our students? Do any gains we experience outweigh the losses?