Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Robotics: The End of Human Health Providers?

By Jonathan D. Linkous, CEO, PATH

Stories about the threat of advanced medical innovations on the medical profession have flooded the internet. Here are a few of the eye-catching headlines from the last week:

In fact, automation in healthcare is nothing new — it’s been around for years. Appearing above is an early automatic blood-letting machine. OK, that’s a bit much but it proves that this is long in coming. More recently, doctors ditched the practice of thumbing through the Physician’s Desk Reference for software programs like Epocrates to identify drug interactions. Dictating patient records moved first to outsourced transcription services then to automation integrated within electronic medical records.

The consensus among most experts is that there is no danger to the demand for physicians or nurses. However, there probably will be a shift in demand among types of providers from those that simply diagnose to those providing treatment and intervention. For example, the development of automated applications for eye exams including refraction, the identification of diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma may result in a significant upsurge in demand for treatment, reducing the need for optometrists and increasing demand for ophthalmologists.

For allied professions, the peril may be closer. Many allied professionals are involved in tasks that can be fully or partially replaced through AI, automation, and robotics. This is low hanging fruit in the market, as the lobby groups for these professions are significantly weaker than physicians and nurses and heir settings are disbursed throughout many locations.

Bertalan Meskó, M.D., PhD, author of the Medical Futurist.com identifies nine areas of medicine that are already experiencing significant automation-related disruption. (http://medicalfuturist.com/artificial-intelligence-will-redesign-healthcare/)

  1.      Mining medical records
  2.      Designing treatment plans
  3.      Assisting repetitive jobs
  4.      Getting the most out of in-person and online consultations
  5.      Health assistance and medication management
  6.      Precision medicine
  7.      Drug creation
  8.      Open AI helping people make healthier choices and decisions
  9.      Analyzing a healthcare system

Years of studies in automated interpretation of radiology and pathology images and cardiac scans have shown that computers are becoming (or have become) superior to humans in identifying anomalies. Despite debates among cardiologists about false positives, almost all electrocardiograms (ECGs) are read by the software first and then subsequently reviewed by the provider. Very few doctors would dare to read an ECG without having it first read by the computer.

It’s not surprising that the physician’s lobby is starting to raise awareness of the issue. Recently, the American Medical Association felt compelled to adopt policy recommendations on augmented intelligence. The Association reported that a recent survey of physicians revealed that they are most receptive to digital health tools that can be integrated smoothly into their current practice, will improve care, and will enhance patient-physician relationships.

Most AI, automation, and robotic applications are termed “decision support” implying that the doctor is still in control —however these “virtual assistants” are learning fast, and their developers are aiming at a time when the virtual doctor is more reliable, more productive, and more trusted by the patient. Ultimately, it will result in a redistribution of medical providers. But, like other industries, change has been constant in medicine and, like other industries, such change is getting faster.

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