It is not hard to imagine a future where people using ‘wearables’ or their successors have their data transmitted to a smart machine for analysis and a recommended course of action. These people may be using the devices to spot any abnormalities early so that disease can be prevented. Alternatively, they may already be diagnosed with a disease and are monitoring the success of treatment. The fact that artificial intelligence is used both to consider the results and where appropriate to propose a remedy may not be revolutionary. However, if no doctor was involved at any stage what then?
This question follows on from the prediction that technology could make 80% of doctors redundant¹. A prediction which doesn’t seem quite so outrageous when we consider that already existing technology can outperform doctors in diagnosis and improve results in surgery. The threat to their livelihoods is taken seriously by those involved in medicine and one important line of defence is that a machine can never replace the human relationship with the doctor. Machines lack empathy, they say, the ability of doctors to put themselves in patients’ shoes.
Unfortunately, patients’ experience with doctors does not always reflect this quality. Too often doctors can be too distant to be empathetic, a kind of self-protection mechanism. Alternatively, they may simply be too busy or stressed. Also, we should recognise that empathetic machines are on the way and are less likely to be subject to human failings. Indeed, an early example is already here among the range of healthcare chatbots. Called Woebot, the device interacts with depressed patients listening and counselling just like a psychologist².
How well patients will accept a machine, a ‘docbot’ if you will, in place of a real doctor may be a generational thing. People brought up interacting with smart toys and devices from early childhood may have a very different attitude from many of today’s elderly who have never interacted with a computer. Also, of course, artificial intelligence may change the game enabling doctors to be more empathetic by taking over the very large amount of administrative work that currently burdens them as well as by helping to train them better.
The future may therefore be one of more empathetic doctors working alongside more empathetic machines, giving patients the best of both worlds. Whatever happens, it will be driven by one simple fact. People are the raison d’etre of healthcare and no machine will change that!
- Vinod Khosla: machines will replace 80% of doctors. wired.co.uk, 4th September 2012
- 11 healthcare chatbots that can improve the patient experience. Getreferrralmd.com, 11th March 2019