How much will artificial intelligence (AI) play in the future when you require medical care? Today, millions are being spent to produce cars that drive by themselves. Will the same be spent on Dr. AI, your family doctor?
Ironically, this column wasn’t triggered by reading a medical report. Rather, it originates from an article written by Matt Harrison, contributing editor of Park Avenue Digest, an economic news publication.
Harrison writes that we’re getting closer to seeing a robotic doctor than one would think. For instance, the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York already has a robot able to pick up pneumonia in chest X-rays, with the final diagnosis made by a human doctor. But I wonder how long this will last?
Harrison adds that countries such as Switzerland are quickly adapting to AI. After all, robots have a flawless memory, never get tired, suffer from burnout, get ill, or need time off from work.
Moreover, today the volume of new medical information is huge. And anyone who believes a doctor can keep abreast of all this knowledge, as well as looking after a busy medical practice, is living in Disneyland.
But this advancement is not just happening in Switzerland. Robots have been sneaking into operating rooms here in North America without much fanfare. And I haven’t heard any surgeons complain that their robotic assistant wasn’t a great asset.
Not everyone is applauding this new intrusion into medical practice. Dr. Vanessa Rampton, at the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy in Montreal, along with Professor Giatgen Spinas, at the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, claim it’s a step in the wrong direction.
So, would I ever wish to be attended by Dr. AI? It depends on the circumstances. If I had a rare disease, and since no doctor knows everything, I’d be reassured if my doctor asked Dr. AI for an opinion.
But I do see a major problem. Many years ago, a young mother, a patient of mine, was dying. Her nurse called to ask me if I could see her. When I arrived, she wondered if I would allow her to kiss me, as thanks for all the medical care I’d given her. I’ve never forgotten that tragic moment and never will. How would Dr. AI cope with this situation?
Medicine to me will always be a profession where great compassion is required of the doctor when patients face serious illness. So, I hope we will never reach a point where robotic doctors become the only bedside attendant.
But it would be naïve and unrealistic to deny that Dr. AI will not have a major effect on medical practice. Since robots can assemble cars, surely, they could take your blood pressure. In fact, their pressure gauge might even be more accurate. We’ve known for years that patients become tense when doctors appear in their white coats. This often triggers a false increase in BP (the white coat syndrome).
Today, a major problem is the short time doctors have during an office visit to resolve long-standing health issues. For instance, they would have to be magicians to quickly solve the problems facing an overweight patient, with hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.
But Dr. AI, working as a health care assistant, could discuss the Gifford -Jones Law that states that one serious problem leads to another and another. How this lifestyle problem, if not corrected, will lead to heart attack. And Dr. AI would never tire of repeating this message over and over to hundreds of patients.
Conventional medicine has brought us many great advantages. But it has also failed, otherwise we would not be in such a mess today, with people dying of diseases that should never happen.
Robots may be the very thing that doctors need. They could help busy doctors convince patients that in the past we died of infectious diseases. Now, it’s a totally new ballgame. We face an epidemic of degenerative lifestyle disease, the likes of which the world has never seen, and it’s increasing every year. If unchecked, it will bring our health care system to its knees.
So, keep an open mind about robotic doctors. They could save us all from self-inflicted disease.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a syndicated columnist whose medical column appears in The Guardian every Tuesday. Check out his website, docgiff.com, which provides easy access to past columns and medical tips. For comments, readers are invited to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found on Twitter.com/GiffordJonesMD.