Will computers replace doctors?

Computers already infuse modern medicine, but will they replace their human counterparts entirely?
Computers already infuse modern medicine, but will they replace their human counterparts entirely?

Even if you look to science fiction, doctors haven't been entirely replaced by computers. If you remember "Star Trek: Voyager", a TV show set in the 24th century, holographic doctors are commonplace. But they're known as Emergency Medical Holograms because they're only intended to be used in the event of an emergency. As the series progresses, however, the EMH on the show (known only as The Doctor) has to become the full-time chief medical officer aboard the ship out of necessity, and he gets the job done just fine. He even becomes a full-fledged character on the show.

In real life, we consult computers instead of doctors already, using the Internet to research symptoms and conditions before we even think about making an appointment. That's still not the same as trusting an actual person, though, and some people argue that computers can never replace doctors for that reason. Computers can't have long conversations with patients to tease out bits of information that may be helpful in forming a diagnosis, nor can they show empathy to make that patient feel comfortable. No, we don't go to the doctor to make friends, but it's not nice to feel like a number, either.

If you were to sum up the answer to this question in one word, it would be "depends." Will medicine as a profession be totally obsolete in the future? Probably not. Will computers replace doctors for some things? Probably so. The only thing that's certain is that medicine as we know it will change drastically in the future.

People who write and report on the topic disagree as to exactly what's going to happen, though. How do experts weigh in on the role of robots and computers in future medicine? More on that next.

Man vs. Machine

There's no doubt that computers are becoming more sophisticated, and plenty of people believe that they'll replace doctors to at least some extent. Dr. Kent Bottles argues that "within five years, primary care providers will be replaced by sociable humanoid robots, avatars and computer programs" [source: KevinMD]. He believes there will still be doctors, but they'll all specialize as computers take over the basic functions of a primary doctor. Many diseases -- what Dr. Bottles calls "rules-based chronic diseases" because we can understand them very well from a scientific standpoint -- can be diagnosed and treated by a computer, including type II diabetes. This leaves doctors free to diagnose and treat chronic diseases that require more intuition and reasoning, like schizophrenia.

Farhad Manjoo, a technical writer whose wife is a pathologist, agrees that computers will replace doctors, but it's not the primary-care providers who should be concerned. Doctors who are specialists -- like his wife -- are the ones whose jobs are in trouble. Manjoo reasons that "robots are great specialists. They excel at doing one thing repeatedly, and when they focus, they can achieve near perfection" [source: Slate]. Because primary doctors treat a wide variety of diseases and conditions, they're versatile enough to keep their jobs. They also have those all-important communication skills.

Or do they? There's yet another opinion out there. Ezra Klein points out that doctors, while good at the science part of practicing medicine, aren't always good at the conversation part. Computers can separate "conversation, the human element of the practice, from the technical diagnosis" [source: Washington Post]. Klein says that doctors' offices already have people great at the former: nurses. So maybe some primary-care physicians will lose their jobs, but we'll still need some kind of human healthcare professional to talk to us and feed our information into a computer. Other professions now combine computer and human elements, like accountancy.

Computers are already doing a lot of work in medicine. Read on to learn about their roles today.

Surgical Robots

Since the first robot-assisted surgery in 1985, robotic surgery has gotten a lot of attention. Today, the most common system is the da Vinci Surgical System. It has a 3D-camera system that surgeons view on a screen, as well as robotic arms that hold instruments inside the patient's body. The system translates a surgeon's hand movements, using robotic arms, into much smaller movements inside, allowing for tiny incisions in surgeries that would otherwise require large ones (and much more discomfort and recovery time). This system is used in more than 800 hospitals in the United States and Europe. But until 2010, none of these robotic surgeries was solely performed by robots -- it was always a robot mirroring the movements of a surgeon. Some robotic surgeries in 2010, however, were "fully robotic" -- a surgeon pressed some buttons but did not manipulate the instruments in any way.

Robots are also used to help diagnose and treat disease. The Pap smear is a test that most women are familiar with – it helps diagnose cervical cancer, and women get one every year. The slides are often analyzed by an automated system, which targets areas of concern for a person to review later. This process has been proven to help catch more instances of pre-cancerous lesions, leading to more computer-aided disease diagnostics.

Watson, the artificial intelligence IBM computer famous for beating "Jeopardy!" contestants in 2011, is also being used to help diagnose conditions. The machine can use its evidence-based learning and natural language capabilities to receive a query from a doctor and mine the latest medical data to help reach a diagnosis.

But the question remains: Would people ever accept just speaking to a computer instead of a doctor? Dr. Bottles thinks so. He cites a medical kiosk avatar featured at a panel called "Man-Made Minds: Living With Thinking Machines" at the World Science Festival in 2011. The kiosk was used by a young mother who was concerned about her child's diarrhea. The panel moderator stated that "the avatar was much more compassionate in relating to the child and his mother than human triage nurses she has encountered as a mother taking her child to New York City Hospital emergency rooms" [source: Kevin MD].

As long as we can feel cared about and we're getting accurate diagnosis and treatment, maybe it doesn't matter whether the person giving it is a human or a robot.

Author's Note

I suspect that many people are like me -- they've dealt with healthcare professionals all over the spectrum. I've had some amazingly empathetic ones. I've had ones who barely said two words to me and never made eye contact. I've had ones who seemed more interested in telling me about their day than finding out why I was there in the first place. And I've also had ones that made mistakes. Maybe some people would initially feel uncomfortable getting a diagnosis and treatment from a computer, but there's always a learning curve. Those people who joked about never being able to get their VCR to do anything but blink "12:00" are using cell phones now. I think that it'll end up being a mix of the two -- even if they can seem compassionate, it will be tough for some people to tell their stories (and that's what medical histories can be) to a computer. Even if it's a "sociable human robot."

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  • Bottles, Dr. Kent. "Will patients trust sociable human robots?" KevinMD.com. Aug. 2011. (Aug. 15, 2012) http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2011/08/patients-trust-sociable-humanoid-robots.html
  • Fachot, Morand. "Doctor Robot, I presume?' International Electrotechnical Commission. July 2011. (Aug. 15, 2012) http://www.iec.ch/etech/2011/etech_0711/ind-2.htm
  • IBM. "Putting Watson to Work." 2011. (Aug. 15, 2012) http://www-03.ibm.com/innovation/us/watson/watson_in_healthcare.shtml
  • Klein, Ezra. "How robots will replace doctors." The Washington Post. Oct. 1, 2011. (Aug. 15, 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/how-robots-will-replace-doctors/2011/08/25/gIQASA17AL_blog.html
  • Manjoo, Farhad. "Will Robots Steal Your Job? Part II: The Robot Will See You Now." Slate. Sept. 27, 2011. (Aug. 15, 2012) http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/robot_invasion/2011/09/will_robots_steal_your_job_3.single.html
  • Sapkota, Nabin. "Computers won't replace doctors." Columbus Telegram. May 22, 2012. (Aug. 15, 2012) http://columbustelegram.com/news/local/computers-won-t-replace-doctors/article_b0fdd4de-a411-11e1-942c-0019bb2963f4.html
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Robotic Surgery." Medline Plus. 2011. (Aug. 15, 2012) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007339.htm