Constant advances in technology have created a global village in which we all are connected. Or at least it feels like we are.
But a fascinating new book entitled The Lexus and the Olive Tree contains some lessons about keeping the explosion of technology and information in perspective.
The book, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, N.Y., is authored by Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Friedman, a foreign affairs reporter and columnist for The New York Times. Friedman traveled the world, meeting with peasants in Brazil, students in Tehran and leaders of foreign governments. In doing so, he saw both the promise and the limitations of technology.
In the book he tells of visiting a Japanese plant that manufactures Lexus automobiles. At the time, the plant was producing more than 300 cars a day -- a feat accomplished with 66 people and 300-plus robots. As far as Friedman could tell, the robots were doing all the manufacturing; the people were there only for quality control.
Friedman realized that the Lexus factory represented something very basic to all of us: the need for prosperity, progress, improvement, modernization and for doing things faster, better and cheaper. It's an idea that's summed up nicely in the Lexus slogan often heard on television commercials: "The relentless pursuit of perfection."
Yet Friedman also makes another point in his book. No matter how fast we can travel across the country or how fully our cars are equipped with cell phones, faxes and navigational systems, we all also crave what he calls the olive tree.
It's not that the Lexus isn't worthwhile and useful -- it is a magnificent piece of engineering. It's just that it can never be a tree, and we need trees, and all that they symbolize, in our lives.
Friedman puts it this way: "(Olive trees) represent everything that roots us, identifies us, and locates us in the world -- whether it's belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion or, most of all, a place called home. Olive trees are what give us the warmth of family, the joy of individuality, the intimacy of rituals, the depth of relationships, and the confidence and security to reach out to others."
I believe Friedman's statement carries an important message for medical executives: We sometimes spend so much time building the equivalent of a better Lexus that we lose sight of our need for an olive tree.
It's easy to invest money in more bells, lights and whistles -- in fancy medical office buildings and expensive technology -- to solve our problems or draw patients to our practice. But no technology can take the place of the way we engage and relate to people. Whether someone is seriously sick or just coming in for a routine test, healthcare is a business where little things mean a lot.
In the age of the Internet -- where you can chat with people all over the world, buy a car, even find a spouse online -- we shouldn't forget that every person we work with, and every patient we treat, is a part of a community. And each requires a personal connection, particularly those facing serious concerns about their health and well-being.
No matter how enticing the virtual world may be or how powerful our luxury car, we still need our olive trees -- the tiny gestures and the kind words that make us feel human.
It's the core of this business, Charles S. Lauer Publisher