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New technology in healthcare: Will your next doctor be an algorithm?

Michael McQueen

5 minute read
Doctor in a hospital looking at data on an iPad

Forget medical drone delivery and transport, some of the biggest technology giants in the world are now investing in your healthcare.

Amazon recently acquired American online pharmacy PillPack and Google has made similar moves into the healthcare division purchasing Verily, Deep Mind and Calico, leaving little doubt that the way you stay healthy is a data-driven business ripe for automation.

So where does this leave health professionals - from local GPs to specialists or surgeons to physiotherapists or optometrists?

While the jobs of medical professionals may be safe for now, healthcare is already being transformed by Artificial Intelligence (AI) in some significant ways.

IBM’s AI-powered Watson supercomputer has already revolutionised the way you’re diagnosed giving you unprecedented speed and accuracy; and a new player in the space, Alibaba Health, recently unveiled an AI service for disease diagnosis called ‘Doctor You’. To give you an idea of the power of this revolutionary technology, Doctor You can be used for medical image diagnosis of CT scans to identify early indicators of cancer.

According to vice president of Alibaba Health Ke Yan, “Within the coming decade, AI will be capable of taking over half of the workload from doctors in China.”

A doctor reviewing data on an iPad screen

Robots in the hospital room

In surgical wards, automation is proving to be a game-changing technology to healthcare. 40 per cent1 of robots currently sold worldwide are designed for surgical purposes, with the number of robotic surgeries increasing by 30 per cent every year.

The da Vinci robot is used in a variety of procedures from prostatectomies to cardiac valve repairs and gynecologic surgical procedures. Check out a video of it in action here.

While some in the medical fraternity caution against a reliance on robots in the operating room, these machines will be able to perform procedures less invasively and with more accuracy than humans.

However, with automation technology playing an ever-increasing role in disease detection and treatment, ethical and practical issues abound.

The big question when it comes to robotics is, “If and when misdiagnoses occur and mistakes happen, who’s to blame?”

Within the coming decade, AI will be capable of taking over half of the workload from doctors in China

Can you automate care?

Beyond ethical and privacy considerations, the most significant issues regarding the role of new technology in healthcare automation are perhaps more philosophical in nature.

While robots and algorithms can automate caregiving, the reality is that no-one can automate caring. It is the uniquely human characteristics of empathy, intuition and compassion that can make all the difference when you or a loved one is in need of medical attention. Technology will never truly replace this.

So while we will see more medical functions automated in the coming years, there will always be a vital role for humans in caring for other humans. It’s what we do best. That said, the pace of automation in the medical sector will increase dramatically in the years to come. Those health professionals who resist the trend or ignore it will likely find themselves disrupted in the blink of an eye. However, those who can embrace automation and see it as an enabler for the uniquely human traits that personal and professional services can offer will flourish.

Keen to find out more about the future of healthcare and medicine? Check out our Future Happenings page where we talk AI, robots and telemedicine.

1Ford, M. 2015, Rise of the Robots, Basic Books, New York, pp. 32, 33

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