Dr. Robot will see you now: Fiction or the future?

Dr Steel

There is no disputing the fact that robots are having an impact on jobs, whether positively or negatively for humans. With the advancements in machine learning, it is no longer routine jobs that are being highlighted of being at risk of automation. Automation in high-paying jobs may not replace humans entirely, but can cut costs and free up time for the human to focus on other aspects of their job.

One such area that is showing extensive progress in automating certain roles is in the medical field, everything from diagnosing patients, taking blood, performing surgeries and mixing medications.

This market snapshot looks at the automation risks that face the medical field over the next few decades and whether this automation will help or hinder the doctor’s role.

How is automation affecting certain roles in the medical field

Despite the fact that certain roles for doctors, surgeons, nurses etc. may change in the next few decades the likelihood that automation will have any negative impact on humans are minimal. JIST Career Solution’s recently released their Occupational Outlook Handbook 2016 – 2017, which includes a ranking of the best 100 jobs in the U.S. The top two spots go to the medical field, with physicians and surgeons in the top spot with growth of 14 percent. While the second spot goes to nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners with growth of 31.4 percent.

The medical field is a long way off from true autonomy, rather what robots are doing are augmenting doctors and surgeons roles. Here are just a few examples are what automation is taking place.

Helping with diagnosis and treatment

A vast majority of a doctor’s role is to analyze large amounts of content, diagnose a patient and ultimately prescribe an adequate treatment plan. Human doctors are only able to recall a fraction of the over 10,000 known human diseases, add to that the fact that they are overworked and stressed and errors are bound to creep in.

In the U.S., approximately 12 million patients who seek outpatient care will be misdiagnosed each year, according to research published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety.

Cognitive computing systems like IBM’s Watson have shown that they can analyze large amounts of content in a short amount of time and ultimately understand that content. According to IBM, Watson can read 40 million documents in 15 seconds. In addition, to being able to consume large amounts of content, computer-aided diagnosis can also evaluate for example the patient’s history and risk factors and then offer various treatment plans.

Sixteen cancer institutes, including Cleveland Clinic, Columbia University, the University of Kansas Cancer Center, and Yale Cancer Center, are already using IBM Watson Health to assist doctors in making diagnoses.

While cognitive computing systems are great and could save doctor’s a lot of time, what they aren’t able to do is detect when patients are lying. The truth is patients lie and human doctors will still need to be around to use their gut instinct when they know a patient isn’t being completely honest or to question them further to get that piece of information a patient didn’t feel was relevant.

Robitics in medicineAssisting with surgery

For years, robots have been assisting doctors with surgeries. The da Vinci Surgical System is the most widely known medical robot, and since gaining FDA approval in 2000, has successfully assisted in millions of surgeries. Other robots are being used to assist surgeons in cataract surgery, hair transplant treatment, and rehabilitation therapy following a stroke or other neurological disorder. Even a robot, clinical trials currently being explored, that can draw blood from patients a solution that would have a dramatic impact on reducing human errors and patient discomfort, while at the same time having a significant reduction in time and cost.

Fully digital hospitals

Humber River Hospital in Toronto, who touts itself as the North America’s first fully digital hospital, implemented full digitization in October. In the hospital, you will find robots mingling amongst human staff, with robots responsible for mixing the correct dosage of chemotherapy drugs, to transporting meals, medications, and linen. While these technological advancements definitely improve efficiency and accuracy they hasn’t impacted negatively on the staff, which was evident when the hospital hired an additional 700 employees.

Paying for health data

Cognitive computing systems rely on medical information, so imagine how reliable it could be if it had access to medical data of an entire population. Having access to health data has huge potential in improving healthcare and advancing medical research.

Would you be willing to sell your health data? Did you even know that this was a possibility? Well, it is, and there are services out there who would be willing to hand over cash for your health data.

Many people don’t think their health data is worth much, but in the right hands, it could be. “But if we truly want to enable the breakthroughs and behavior changes that will transform our health, we must be willing to share our most personal asset: the data about our lifestyle, state of health, and disease,” says Dr. Beth Seidenberg.

The health data that we may take for granted is very valuable for organizations, so it could ultimately put you in the driver’s seat and allow you to pick and choose to whom you want to sell your data.

You may think being paid for your health data is only possible in the future, but there are organizations around the world today who are willing to pay people for their health data. Some of these services include datacoup in the U.S., healthbank in Switzerland, and Our Data Mutual in the U.K.     

How do we make doctors more productive?

While automation in the medical field will definitely help reduce costs, quicker completion of surgeries and diagnosing of patients, the need still remains for the human element.

When asked what will happen when AI takes over the role of a doctor, Robert Tholemeier, Adjunct Analyst – Analytics and Care Management, at Chilmark Research simply replied, “It won’t.”

“AI definitely never will. The big part of healthcare is motivating patients to do what they need to do. You can write all the prescriptions in the world. If the patient doesn’t take them, then … The doctor/patient interface is the critical step. There’s such a need for just the basics, and the basics will go such a long way,” Tholemeier went on.

Tholemeier uses the analogy of aviation and highlights the advances in automation that have changed the pilot’s role. He wants to know how we can make doctors more productive as well.

Does this mean doctors should be spending more time with patients now that automation has saved them time, or is it a matter of seeing more patients remotely using mobile telepresence technology? Will more of their time be spent on research, or will different roles emerge once automation gets a solid place in the medical field? Time will tell.

Image credit: Publicity shot owned by Dr. Steel [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons | Army Medicine; Flickr