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Should We Sacrifice Medicine’s Sacred COW?

Chicago Cubs fans of a certain vintage will never forget broadcaster Harry Carey’s signature line, “Holy cow!”  Some have speculated that the exclamation may have originated in Hinduism, one of the world’s major religions, whose adherents worldwide number approximately one billion.  Hindus regard cows as maternal, caring figures, symbols of selfless giving in the form of milk, curds, butter, and other important products.

One of the most important figures in the faith, Krishna, is said to have been a cowherd, and one of his names, Govinda, means protector of cows.  In short, cows are sacred to Hindus, and their slaughter is banned in virtually all Indian states.

Medicine, too, has its sacred cows, which are well known to physicians, nurses, and patients visited by medical teams on their hospital rounds.  In this case, the cow is not an animal but a machine.  In particular, it is the computer on wheels, or COW, a contraption that usually consists of a laptop computer mounted on a height-adjustable pole with a rolling base.  It is used to enter, store and retrieve medical information, including patients’ diagnoses, vital signs, medications, and laboratory results, as well as to record new orders.

As the team moves from room to room and floor to floor, the COW is pushed right along. The COW is often treated with a degree of deference seemingly bordering on reverence.  For one thing, people in hallways and patients’ rooms are constantly making way for the COW.  As an expensive and essential piece of equipment, it is handled gingerly.  Often only the senior member of the medical team or his or her lieutenant touches the COW.

Others know that they have said something important when they see the chief keyboarding the information into the COW.  Sometimes it plays an almost oracular role. When questions arise to which no one knows the answer, such as the date of a patient’s admission or the time course of a fever, they often consult the COW. Just as cows wandering the streets of Indian cities often obstruct traffic, so healthcare’s COWS can and often do get in the way of good medicine. Continue reading…

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