Over the last few years we have seen significant advances in healthcare related products, channels and processes. The increase in wearable technology like heart monitors, or pedometers; the Apple watch for example, which allows wearers to track a range of health statistics. The ever-increasing amount of games that promise to improve your cognitive ability, or apps that can count your calories and offer nutritional advice. Not to mention expert surgeons being able to train others from all over the world, on how to perform complex operations using video streaming, with the option to ask questions (as was recently done in St. Anna hospital in Geldrop).
There is no question that digitalisation has already had a significant positive impact on healthcare, but this leads us to our next question: Will there ever come a time when we have no need for doctors?
The Dubai Health Authority (DHA), recently inaugurated a smart pharmacy equipped with a robot for prescribing and dispensing medication to patrons. The robot dispenses the prescribed medication with a click of a button based on a bar code, saving time, and supposedly minimising any human error.
Depending on the field and specialism, acquiring knowledge plus gaining hands-on experience means that it can take anywhere between 9 and 12 years for a doctor to become fully qualified in their respective field. Currently General Practitioners (GPs) tend to have a broad knowledge base and can offer general advice. For more complex cases however, the GP would usually need to refer a patient to a specialist. Even though a specialist may have great depth in his or her field, he or she may not be able to provide the absolute best insight for every single patient’s condition.
With the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), we are equipped with the technology to have computers quickly cross reference and identify patterns that humans can’t. This would be unimaginable 30 or even 20 years ago. Partnered with electronic personal medical histories, and web-based software (much like the model employed by the company ‘Modernizing Medicine’), computers now and into the future will not only have the width of knowledge GP’s, but the depth of knowledge of a specialist (and beyond) across every field of medicine.
Of course, digitalisation is not without its risks, as captured in the book ‘The Digital Doctor’ by Robert Wachter. Wachter shares an anecdote about a teenager who ends up being given a massive overdose of antibiotics after a new electronic system in a hospital full of safeguards against errors, allowed a major error to occur. Therefore, we could infer that a major risk of digitalisation could be human’s overdependence on the technology. In addition to this, there is the risk that humans may rely on computers, even more than their own knowledge.
Not to mention that a computer can always be hacked.
Could digital doctors become our reality?
While we agree that there is significant room for the expansion of digitalisation in healthcare, a fully autonomous digital doctor seems highly unlikely in the near future. Firstly because humans will always have a primary preference for human contact, especially in the vulnerability of sickness. Secondly, because humans are living organisms. As such, our bodies as well as the sicknesses which plague us are constantly evolving. Consider Smallpox for example which has had a significant impact on world history with the amount of lives it claimed, yet now eradicated. We will always need human doctors, at the very least to programme computers. And while we already have computer assisted surgery, we don’t yet have the technology for a computer to perform a whole surgical procedure without human intervention.
While we celebrate the and welcome the advances in technology surrounding healthcare, there will always be a need for human doctors. Perhaps as the use of A.I. in the medical field increases, the way doctors are trained will change. The time freed up by the use of A.I. could be spent learning how best to optimise the digital-medical partnership, as well as researching how to make the Cancers of today become the Smallpox of tomorrow. As suggested by the author Robert Wachter, computers should become servants rather than masters and do enough of the busywork freeing up doctor’s time, to do what only a person can do.