Will computers replace doctors?

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.