Radiology, Avatars and Human Connection in the Digital Era

In To Sell is Human, Dan Pink tells about the Israeli radiologist Dr. Yehonatan N. Turner, who did an experiment in making his work more personal.

“Radiologists lead lonely professional lives. Unlike many physicians, who spend large parts of their days interacting directly with patients, radiologies often sit alone in dimly lit rooms or hunched over computers reading X-rays, CT scans and MRIs. Such isolation can dull these highly skilled doctors’ interest in their jobs. And worse, if the work begins to feel impersonal and mechanical, it can diminish their actual performance.”

In an effort to help radiologists do their work with more passion and skill, he took photos of a group of patients, and attached the photo to their test results (with their consent). When a radiologist would examine one of their CT scans, the patient’s photo would pop up alongside them.

Three months later, the radiologists examined the same set of CT scans (they see so many CT scans that they wouldn’t have realized that they’d analyzed these before). This time, without the patient photo.

The results were surprising.

“The outcome was startling. Dr. Turner found that “80% of the incidental findings were not reported when the photograph was omitted from the file.” Even though the physicians were looking at precisely the same image they had scrutinized ninety days earlier, this time they were far less meticulous and far less accurate. “Our study emphasizes approaching the patient as a human being and not as an anonymous case study,” Turner told ScienceDaily.”

Many of us can relate to radiologists. Increasingly more of our work and interactions happen online. Communication is mediated by a screen. Though we interact with a lot of people indirectly, it’s easy feel disconnected. And something about these communication technologies, as Liane Davey points out, cue us to emphasize productivity, rather than personal connection in our interactions.

It takes more effort (and more discomfort) to create human connections in our work than it used to, but if Dr. Turner’s research is any indicator, it’s also more vital than ever.

Enter avatars.

Avatars have been adopted all over the internet to perform just this function: give us a face to match with the words written.

In our office we use a work order system, where co-workers from across the country submit ad and support requests. A few weeks ago we implemented an avatar system, getting everyone to upload a photo to the system.

Is was a small gesture, but the results were felt immediately. Now instead of an impersonal request (which could easily feel like a cold demand), we had a face, a personality to attach the request to.

For radiologists, a photo may have literally helped save lives. In your context photos might not be life-and-death, but human connection can build empathy and help you feel more connected.

What measures have you taken to bring more human connection to your work?