We are already living in the world that is experiencing an exponential growth of technology. With their enormous memory and fast processing speed, machines and computers are already doing most of our job in every field. In medicine, these tools have been particularly useful for diagnosis and performing precise complicated procedures. X-rays are being commonly used and are accurate to some millimeters. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), PET (Positron emission Tomography), CT (Computer Tomography) can see beyond what could possibly be seen by surgeon’s naked eye. Imaging is specially used for identifying cancer cells which are then killed by radiations. Researchers are introducing surgical operations where robots do all the surgery, locating a lesion precisely and guiding a device to the exact location of the lesion. So the day doesn’t seem so far when robots will carry out the procedures independently.
There are a number of reasons why I foresee a future in which robots will take the task away from doctors. The first of them is obvious, the enormous storage capacity of a computer. With the rapidly growing knowledge of medicine and increase in informational content over the years, it has become impossible to feed all the data into a human brain. However, we can submit unbelievable amounts of data into computer storage without the fear of it ever being lost. So our robots will contain knowledge of everything from patients’ personal histories to all the diseases that ever came across. Unlike a physician who will never be able to remember everything about every patient, a computer will. Everyone’s medical history, allergies, any unusual condition in past will be preserved in its digital brain ready to be processed quickly beyond any doctor’s capability.
Robots will also significantly reduce the errors made by misdiagnosis. In today’s world, there are countless cases of misdiagnosis. Millions of doctors are present all around the world and all of them make mistakes because they are human. But those mistakes come at the expense of someone’s health or even life. Robots will fill in for human limitations. With huge volumes of information in their database from most historical diseases to the recent ones, a robot is unlikely to misdiagnose as compared to a doctor who despite of having a lot of knowledge naturally concentrates on small number of relevant diseases. For diseases having similar symptoms, a robot is more likely to come up with right diagnosis because of its ability to process enormous amount of data in a fraction of a second. Aided with artificial intelligence, these robots will also be able to handle real life cases that have not appeared before. Artificial intelligence would account for intuition and experience, critical analysis and thinking which are so far considered human traits only.
So we will only need to feed information into system, replicate it and it will never get lost. Rather than investing in medical schools to train millions of medical students every year from taking vital signs to doing complicated surgeries, we will just develop some algorithms on a computer and robots will do all the job way more precisely and effectively. Unlike doctors, they will never get tired, they will never die, and if they crash, it will be easy to reboot them.
On account of cost effectiveness, this seems feasible too. Especially in developing countries, having robots in place of doctors would be economical. Where a mobile phone is cheaper than one time hospital bill for a common cold, an easily accessible robot checking common ailments and prescribing accordingly would come very handy. And there is another aspect to consider. Of these million doctors working in hospitals all around the world, how many of them are actually brilliant to be in, say top 20%? And while everyone wants and deserves to get treated by best doctors, it is impossible due to human limitations. With robots, the debate of good vs. bad doctors won’t exist anymore. Same machines will be treating everyone and would be easily accessible just like our mobile phones and personal computers.
So what I foresee is that in a few decades or so, I will have a personal robot physician equipped with artificial intelligence. It will know everything about me, my medical record, my allergies and treatment history. It will take my vitals, record my sleep patterns and follow up with the symptoms regularly and caution me if there is anything unusual. Being so vigilant, it will be even able to predict heart attacks and strokes. And if something goes wrong, in light of all the available symptoms, it will bring out the best diagnosis and treatment. If I need surgery, hospitals would have more advanced robots doing operations with great precision and accuracy. Health care system will be totally transformed.
We are on our way to that transformation. Some of the examples include mobile phone apps which find out vital signs. Researches are being done to measure risk of skin cancer from a photograph of skin lesion or kind of ear and eye infection from their pictures. Ultrasound and other imaging techniques are getting very common and no doctor’s eye can see what these images show. Different multinational companies are working towards this idea. IBM Watson is one of them. It understands natural language and learns from success and failure to improve future responses. It is on its way to break barrier between people and machines. (More information is available http://www-03.ibm.com/innovation/us/watson/)
The only thing that bothers me here are the human qualities and traits we take great pride in. If I get sick I will always need empathy, counselling and someone to sit besides me (preferably human). Human connection and therapeutic touch have appeared to be quite significant. Robots replacing doctors might obviate human factor from the hospitals to a great extent if not completely. But by that time probably we will get used to being around so many machines. After all with facebook and mobile phones and computers present around us how often do we actually give time to our real friends and family? So we are already on our way to lose human connection. My guess is it wouldn’t worry us a lot to trade it for better treatment option.