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Healthcare Artificial Intelligence: Are Doctors’ Days Numbered?

Among all the fields affected by rapidly evolving technology implementation, healthcare might be one of the most interesting… and promising. An excellent example is the increasing use of telemedicine and remote-controlled machines during surgery. These tools are used by surgeons to improve the speed, efficiency and quality of the services provided to patients. However, the rapid progress of artificial intelligence may come as a real revolution within the healthcare industry.

Companies are now working on intelligent, decision-making devices (robots) whose capabilities are far beyond those of a simple tool. According to Dr. Kent Bottles, M.D., senior fellow at the Thomas Jefferson University School of Population Health, these robots “can take a question about a patient’s symptoms, analyze it, generate a differential diagnosis, collect and evaluate the entire medical literature on the subject and come up with a diagnosis with a measurable level of confidence.”

The maker’s of the Roomba vacuuming robot, iRobot, have just unveiled their most human-like robot yet. Standing 5 feet 4 inches, it functions as a telepresence device for a remotely located doctor. Featuring a flat screen for visual communication, as well as a range of sensors for mapping and navigation, the robot will feed vital signs and other information back to the user-doctor, providing an amazing new way for more doctor expertise where and when it’s needed.

While it may sound like something out of science fiction, the idea of robotic medical practice is a good picture of what the industry’s future might look like. Studies have even shown that patients tend to be well-accepting of care from humanoid robots: they can ask as many questions as they want without feeling foolish, judged or being interrupted by a beeper.

Before android doctors become a wide-spread reality, there are plenty of questions to answer and doubts to alleviate. Firstly, even a machine can make mistakes. And when it comes to healthcare, mistakes tend to have tremendous consequences. All potential risks must be assessed, and responsibility and accountability for robot actions must be determined prior to their implementation. Secondly, the patient-physician social interaction is vitally important to the healing process. As knowledgeable as artificial intelligence may be, some argue that it can never replace real human contact.

Does all this innovation mean that physicians’ jobs are in jeopardy? Probably not anytime soon, but like any other industry where technology has prevailed in the quest for efficiency and cost-effectiveness (e.g. ATMs, self-checkout lanes, airport check-in kiosks), healthcare could be next on the long list of automated industries.

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