The First Law of Robotics is “do no harm”, a phrase familiar to doctors around the world. Now it might be heard echoing in electronic voices though the halls of hospitals. At the 2012 mHealth Summit this week, two presenters offered visions of the future of healthcare that might have hominoid doctors, with their outmoded organic brains and fallible human intelligence, shaking in their pennyloafers.
Vinod Khosla, CEO of Sun Microsystems and Joseph Kvedar, MD, who founded Partners Healthcare’s Center for Connected Health, believe resistance is futile when it comes to the integration of mobile health and telemedicine with standard care. Eventually, we will be facing the replacement of human doctors with computer systems that are smarter, faster, and more accurate than people could ever be.
Khosla stated that “80 percent of what doctors do can be replaced by computers,” noting that rampant misdiagnoses and the fact that 50% of doctors are necessarily below average present major obstacles to modern healthcare. He suggested that the first real wave of computer replacements will be “trained” by the best doctors and serve as assistants rather than replacements.
But the advance of technology is inexorable, and if science fiction is any guide, robots are hard to stop once they get a taste of the self-aware artificial intelligence that scientists have been striving to achieve. As the sustainability of healthcare comes into question, the nation will be facing a shortage of doctors and an influx of needy patients as the baby boomers age and the population grows. With 60% of healthcare costs incurred by human labor, why not turn to computers to lighten the load? They’re simply better at the algorithmic tasks that constitute a large share of a doctor’s activities, says Dr. Kvedar, and greater reliance on technology will allow providers to spread their services across a larger population of patients.
Futurist technology is already in use in clinics and hospitals. Decision support engines warn doctors of drug interactions, and natural language processing plucks computable data out of everyday speech. Robotic surgery is commonplace. Patients use smartphones to talk to doctors, and pocket-sized tablet computers provide instant access to a world of knowledge with the swipe of a finger. These advances were unthinkable a few decades ago. Are android nurses and holographic doctors beamed into a patient’s living room so far-fetched?
Probably, admit Khosla and Kvedar. Changes in “automated healthcare” are more likely to come through consumer-driven communication initiatives, and a greater reliance on technology doesn’t mean humans will be obsolete any time soon. Mobile technology and advances in hardware and software can make healthcare more efficient, effective, and consumer-driven, but it will be a long time before anyone has to worry about HAL’s response to scheduling a check-up.