Could Robots Replace Doctors?


The practice of medicine is changing. Advances in technology have made it possible to achieve better treatment outcomes in ways we never dreamed before.

Does this mean some day we’ll replace doctors with robots?

At a time when innovators are building cars that will drive themselves, this is not such a far-fetched idea. Certain areas of medicine are particularly amenable to such innovation; perhaps none more so than radiology.

Dr. Jason L. Kelly, a radiologist in Denver, admits this could happen soon in an article published by Forbes. He says the same technology helping to build the self-driving care could be used to interpret x-rays and MRI scans. Computers input billions of pictures that can be analyzed in microseconds to determine what is normal or abnormal.

IBM recently bought a healthcare technology company, Merge Healthcare, to get access to medical images. Using these images the company will teach “Watson”, the same supercomputer that beat human contestants on Jeopardy, to read CT scans. This will enable IBM to fill “Watson” with 30 billion medical images to “educate” him.

As Dr. Kelly says, “If, at the end, it can tell a hemangioma (benign) from a cholangiocarcinoma (very bad), then the days of my caffeine-driven, carbon-based perception machine are numbered.”

There are other medical specialties that could be affected. Primary care could be the next one. Medical lab technology companies like Theranos are advancing the amount of information gleaned from a simple finger stick. Kelly says a couple of drops of blood could be used to measure your vital signs and, through the cloud, reference the latest medical literature (more up to date than any human physician), and print out your care plan, including electronically sending prescriptions for your high cholesterol or thyroid deficiency to the local pharmacy.

What about surgery?

Robotics are already in wide-spread use in the field of surgery. The removals of tumors of the prostate and the brain with the aid of robotics are common procedures today. Orthopedic procedures such as total joint replacement and spinal fusion are being aided by the use of robotics in some institutions.

These procedures, however, still require a trained surgeon to operate the robotic arms that do the actual surgery. The robots are merely an extension of the arms of the surgeon. We have not yet reached the point where the robots are on their own.

What can we expect in the future?

Dr. Kelly says the answer to improved diagnosis and treatment is rarely how to use old technology better but rather how to bring new technology to bear. He believes we are at the precipice of real automation and that computers will soon be able to do what doctors do – but better and cheaper.

I believe that will certainly be true in specialties like radiology where there is no doctor-patient relationship and where computers can analyze more data faster than human beings. It may be true in other diagnostic specialties such as pathology or even primary care.

But there is still a place for the human touch when doctors must share bad news or prepare a patient for a challenging or life-threatening procedure. I don’t believe a computer will ever be able to hold your hand and pray for you before that operation – or grieve with you when you lose a loved one.

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