Technology Will Automate the Diagnostic Process, But It Won’t Replace the Doctor

Last fall, Vinod Khosla made the bold statement that technology will automate or replace 80 percent of doctors. He sparked some serious concern amongst physicians everywhere. Is he right? In some sense, he is correct in saying that much of what a doctor does will be automated. Even now, most physicians are scrambling to the nearest device with internet access to look up a drug or disease. Khosla’s theory assumes there can be an even faster way to sense, record, and analyze signs and symptoms. He is likely correct, but that still only accelerates the diagnostic process. However, diagnosis is generally only a portion of the job of a physician.

Often, we are reminded that we can only trust technology to a certain degree. How many times have you looked at your GPS (or phone) and realized “Oh, that’s what it means?" There always seems to be a necessary level of judgement required to use technology for any task. In other words, following technology blindly can be dangerous. In the same manner, physicians are constantly looking at calculated values and determining whether it is “real” or a mistake. Radiologists using picture archiving and communication systems (PACS), for example, spend much of their time ignoring “artifact” that may be mistaken by a novice as a true pathological finding. Even if only an inspector, a human will almost always be required to monitor the conclusions derived by technology.

Consider receiving bad news. How great do you feel when you receive an automated voicemail, in which the voice you hear is that of a robot? “Hello. Tom. You. Have. An. Out. Standing. Balance of…” (Robot voice). You get my point. It's cold and impersonal. I’m sure no one wants to hear about a bad diagnosis using that sort of system. We are human beings and very social creatures. We need social support and to trust other humans. And machines just can't provide this comfort.

Throughout our lives, we are inspired by others. Experts in our field, famous performers, and relatives often motivate us to be our best selves. They may be excellent role models or solid emotional supporters. What they aren’t is cold, automated, or pretending to be human. A machine will likely never inspire human beings. Much of the point of inspiration is knowing that someone else has done what you aspire to do, which makes that task seem more achievable. How can something that never feels disappointment, inadequacy, or doubt have the same effect on a person? Physicians are constantly motivating patients to live healthier lives and emotionally supporting patients as they undergo risky procedures. Additionally, don’t forget the involvement of even more people like the nurses, technicians, and other personnel. In the end, patients need to be cared for by people. Bottom line.

So, to conclude, it's true that some physician tasks will be automated. The diagnostic portion of a physician’s career will be made simpler. In no way, however, will this result in replacing 80% of physicians. Although, we must remember that Luke and Leia were delivered by some sort of robot… (just had to make a Star Wars reference).

William Rusnak, MD's picture

William Rusnak, MD

Medical Information Advisor

William Rusnak, MD (@RusnakMD) is a resident physician in diagnostic radiology, financial investor, writer, and entrepreneur. He writes about topics such as healthcare information technology, data science, biotechnology, and prevention of chronic disease. With his involvement in several emerging healthcare companies, he is actively attempting to bridge the gap between medicine and information technology.

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