The Digital Doctor

Dr. Robert Wachter McGraw Hill, 320 pages, $30

Dr. Robert Wachter's eloquent new book captures all the conflicting emotions, powerfully felt and intelligently analyzed, that practicing medical professionals face in today's health system.

"The Digital Doctor" is one of several books over the last few years to address the conquest of medicine by digital technology. X-rays on film, handwritten charts, paper prescriptions, stethoscopes — the familiar tools are disappearing fast as time-honored routines are replaced by digital and virtual alternatives.

Most previous authors have chosen sides, either mourning the old or hailing the new. Wachter is unusual for his equipoise. He is old enough to remember the way things used to work (or fail to work), and young enough to be reasonably technology-friendly.

A professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a past executive for several prominent national medical associations, he still treks around the hospital seeing patients with the resident foot soldiers. He is also an exceptionally good, fluent writer.

He points out that computers should become servants rather than masters, and do enough of the busywork so that doctors may actually "return to the fundamental work of medicine: diagnosing, treating, comforting, teaching, and discovering."

In the meantime, though, digital doctors are condemned to ride the bucking broncos of suboptimal, intractable systems, still theoretically in charge but no longer entirely in control.