Groceries and Doctors Gone Digital

As the future unfolds, more and more experiences are moving from the real world to the virtual.  There may one day be an equilibrium between the two worlds, but for now, the virtual side is so unexplored that the flow is almost exclusively in that direction, like a modern-day gold rush.  Recently, two more everyday, real-world experiences took a deep breath and leapt over that digital divide.

Korean man scanning virtual groceries with his smartphone

Grocery Shopping

Next time your spouse tells you to pick up some milk on the way home, you can do it literally while you’re waiting to change trains (provided you live in South Korea).  The international grocery chain Tesco just opened an underground virtual market, right on a subway platform.

All the “market” actually is, is a wall-sized billboard covered with pictures of food, essentially a grocery shelf in poster form.  Customers use a smartphone to scan the barcode on each item they want to buy, and the actual food is delivered to their home the very same day.  One day in the future, such virtual markets might be everywhere.

Doctor’s Visits

You’ve used the internet to research symptoms, set up doctor’s appointments and even order prescriptions.  Why not take it a step further and actually do the visit online as well?

Kaiser Health’s recent write-up on telemedicine made quite a splash.  NowClinic, a subsidiary of an insurance company, has been offering 24-hour, inexpensive virtual doctors’ visits to patients for nearly 2 years.  Quoted in the article is Amber Young.  Amber felt “like the walking dead,” but was uninsured and couldn’t afford an out-of-pocket doctor’s visit.  Enter NowClinic, which connected her (by instant message and telephone) to a doctor in a different state, who was able to diagnose her with an upper respiratory infection and provide her a prescription.  The “visit” came at a rock-bottom cost of just $45.

Doctors examining an x-ray

courtesy Clarita / morguefile

A piece of utopia, or hell in a handbasket?

So, what do we think of this?  Personally, I’m all for it.  Oh sure, there are caveats, but on the whole these are positive steps towards the kind of society I want.

Let’s start with the groceries.  A quick scan of the comments on various tech blogs and news sites show a few common concerns.  One, that this will make us more isolated from one another.  But come on – when’s the last time you struck up a conversation with a stranger at the grocery store?  You’re at least as likely to talk to the people standing next to you on the platform.  Another complaint is that there’s a visceral pleasure in buying food in person.  That, I agree with.  But as long as I can still go to a regular market, what’s the problem?  This just allows me to pick up some essentials, during a time when I’d otherwise be waiting around.  So let’s review: no extra time, no shopping cart, no lines, no hassle.  That’s a no-brainer, sign me up!

The doctor issue is trickier.  To be clear, I am not suggesting that virtual doctors should replace the in-person version.  Many diagnoses require a physical exam, and serious conversations about medical issues benefit from a strong doctor-patient relationship.  Neither of those things can be virtualized (at least, not today).

But consider the worsening doctor shortage.  Consider the ballooning cost of healthcare, which is not just an individual pocketbook issue but is straining our entire nation.  And consider the vast number of basic, routine issues that drive people to fill up waiting rooms (if insured) and emergency rooms (if not) every single day.  In light of all that, doesn’t it seem a bit extravagant to insist on a $200, in-person visit for your minor cold, when you could get the same prescription from a ten-minute online meeting?

The Bigger Picture

As our society gets swept up in this tide, pulling us ever further into the digital world, many people fear that our real-life relationships will shrivel and we’ll sink further into isolation.  I agree that this would be tragic, but avoiding technological advances like these two is a very poor response.  There is nothing about either of these technologies that forces us to stay at home, hiding behind a screen.  In fact, with all those hours we’ve saved on grocery shopping and going to the doctor’s, we should have more time than ever to go out and see our friends and family, building those real relationships.

True, a future like that will require actual effort on our part.  But c’mon, folks.  You don’t expect technology to do everything for you, do you?

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6 thoughts on “Groceries and Doctors Gone Digital

  1. In health care, I certainly get the advantages of telemedicine in convenience and lower production unit costs. If true holistic health were merely a simple mechanical assessment, this would work better for us. However as complex mammals with multiple dimensions, much of what is health or illness is missed because it can’t be scanned digitally. Also gets missed in person-to-person encounters when speed and efficiency are the only metrics.

    We humans are herd animals who congregate in tribes around campfires. Much intentionality will be required to create new campfires in the digital age. One person can’t do it alone no matter how determined she/he is to seek out others. There will always need to be some forms of structured places to congregate with various levels of connection or anonymity. Like the grocery store.

    • I agree about needing lots of intentionality. Creating the communities we want to have requires collective action, and some serious forethought to the way we want our spaces to work. What I find exciting (and anxiety-provoking) is that right now – today – is the time for us to make those decisions, while our society is in the midst of the transition.

  2. Actually, I love my grocery store encounters. Our joke name for the Stop n Shop is Stop n talk–although you have to be able to say “gotta go” when you gotta get going.

    On a whole different level is the human need for physical touch. Touch is food, touch is medicine. Without it, children will not develop & thrive. The classic book on this is Ashley Montagu’s “Touching: the Human Significance of the Skin”

    Which may be one reason touch pad technology has proven to be so inuitive and powerful.

    The balance b/w digital and face to face, eye to eye, skin to skin…is in our hands.

    • Interesting! You have a very different experience of the grocery store than I do. Sometimes I wish I lived in a tiny fishing village on the Italian coast, rather than a large American city, just so I could have similar experiences – bumping into neighbors at the market, and so on.

      The importance of touch for human development and relationships will, indeed, be a key issue as we transition into the digital age. Just as with our community spaces, we’re going to have to be very deliberate about keeping the things that are important to us.

    • The app you pointed me to is not just a virtual visit, but seems to be an actual virtual doctor! I think it could be a great tool for many people, and really showcases how powerful it can be to have a tiny computer with you at all times. I do worry that people will rely on it too much, and assume it can take the place of their real doctor. But it certainly fills a need that’s not addressed in any other way.

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