Will robots reduce the need for doctors?

A reader sent me this question: “Yesterday, after my MCAT class, two biomedical engineering students and I talked about this article and the future of medicine. We debated whether such robots could reduce the need for doctors by 80%.”

When I read such predictions I chuckle at the naivety of those who make such pronouncements. The computer advocates do not really understand medical care and diagnosis.

What do we do that computers/robots will have great difficulty replacing? The most important thing that we do involves understanding our patients and what they are really saying. We understand how to ask questions and how to interpret those questions with carefully couched follow-up questions.

We understand how to approach each patient, what vocabulary to use, and how to read body language.

Let’s consider possible uses for computers.

Computers do not think, rather the provide results of calculations. They cannot choose which data to include.

Computers can only help with diagnosis when we know that we have the wrong diagnosis. Computers will make the wrong diagnosis if we do not know what information to put into the computer.

Remember the classic adage, junk in, junk out. We have to understand the patient before we can take the history, do the physical and order appropriate tests.

Many patient diagnoses are delayed because we have premature closure. We stop collecting data and stop thinking.

Computers cannot provide the healing touch. Computers cannot comfort.

Maybe one day we will have androids who appear human. Until then patients need us, because the human relationship really matters to most patients.

Robert Centor is an internal medicine physician who blogs at DB’s Medical Rants.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/annamraju Ramana Annamraju

    it s total nonsense. You are putting doctors on pedestal … Since you ask right questions get right clinical information. Still guessing game how ever good are in that. I bet my life computers can diagnose diseases better than a doctor anyday.,..,…

    • Mengles

      Can a computer do a physical exam? No. Even physical exam findings can vary from patient to patient based on risk factors and age. Not all diseases in all patients present with physical exam findings 100% of the time. There’s a reason why computers will never replace doctors. Medicine is not algorithmic no matter how much computer science techies think it is. Oh by the way, in Googling, I loved your Linkedin account in which you state you “strongly believe the best way of reducing health care costs is by shifting “‘Provider Centric care’ to ‘Technology Centric Care’”, explains your ulterior motive in all this right? I guess if you can’t replace doctors why not make a living trying to accomplish the impossible, right?

  • http://www.facebook.com/vikas.desai.92560 Vikas Desai

    when a patient provides a rudimentary history the computer will most assuredly come to the correct conclusion, in addition to that it will provide 2000 other differential diagnoses for the patient to digest as well. Patients can’t and don’t want to process all this info and eventually it leads to an absurd amount of anxiety. If anything in the age of the computer doctors are needed more than ever to explain the exponential amount of white noise that is health care information. @ramana don’t be such a hater……why are you trolling medical websites anyway

  • buzzkillersmith

    I love techies when they get that faraway look in their eyes

    I’m still waiting for the day the Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot, will clean my house. What I really need is a robot to shower me (not a morning person), brush my teeth, and put on my clothes. My checkbook really needs balancing and the underwear needs washing.

    I would submit that these essential human needs must be satisfied before Dr. Robot. Plus he would (it would) look bulky in a white coat.

    • http://onhealthtech.blogspot.com Margalit Gur-Arie

      Folding laundry is my holy grail….
      It’s not going to happen though because your essential human needs do not impose costs on corporations. Technology, just like politics, and soon medicine, have moved on from human needs to a new set of lords and masters.

  • Polifarma

    Still guessing game how ever good are in that.

  • Dave

    Well said! Diagnostic thinking is not the limiting factor for being a good physician, though computers like Watson will be great tools which free up doctors to focus on other things. Calculators have not replaced engineers and stats software has not replaced statisticians.

  • Close Call

    Aww, techies… gotta love ‘em.

    They always start from two basic assumptions:

    1. Personal interactions (i.e. bedside manner) are SO overrated.
    2. People make rational decisions when presented with discrete probabilities.

    Neither of those assumptions are true.

  • doc99

    Thus far, the computer is ill-equipped to deal with statistical outliers. Of course, given the rising pressure for cookbook medicine ala USPSTF, physicians of the future may similarly be ill-equipped as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shirie.leng Shirie Leng

    Read the article in the latest Atlantic Monthly. It’ll scare the pants off you. medicineforreal.wordpress.com for more

    • buzzkillersmith

      Not so scary. Years ago Kramer on Seinfeld wondered whether mouth vacuums would replace napkins in the year 2000. The appropriate response to the robot threat is scorn and derision.

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