New technologies continue to be introduced into the sector and we should welcome them
Intelligent machines are increasingly operating complex manufacturing systems and replacing humans on factory floors, but they have so far not made significant inroads in health care. The sector’s most advanced machines, from ultra-high-resolution imaging instruments to surgical robots, are still fully controlled by humans.
But as robotic and artificial-intelligence (AI) systems become more advanced, will they eventually render doctors and nurses obsolete, with patients consulting a computer instead? The short answer is: not anytime soon. Health-care professionals will certainly become increasingly dependent on machines; but technology will augment, not replace, their abilities, and doctors will remain in charge of medical practices.
In his 2009 book `The Innovator’s Prescription’, Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen identified a spectrum of medical practices that range between “intuitive” and “precision.” Intuitive medicine describes when a doctor interprets a patient’s symptoms to arrive at a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment, the efficacy of which is often uncertain. Precision medicine – which should not be confused with personalised medicine – describes a rules-based process by which standardised treatments with predictable outcomes are applied to known health conditions.
According to Christensen, most of the medicine practiced today is closer to the intuitive side of the spectrum, and only a few diseases, primarily infections, can be treated using precision medicine. In fact, at the moment, the concept of precision medicine is incorrectly applied to improve only the outcomes of intuitive medicine, instead of identifying the causal mechanisms of diseases. As long as this is true, human know-how and engagement will remain integral to health care.
Treating unspecific symptoms without a prescribed roadmap requires effective decision-making and trust, which is a significant hurdle for machines. After millions of years of evolution, humans have developed a capacity for contextual intuition that enables trained doctors to make sensible and timely decisions in uncertain, data-scarce environments. Even the most sophisticated AI systems that we have today would need to be improved significantly in order to mimic this ability.
Communicating with patients poses an even greater challenge for machines. Explaining the many nuances of a mysterious disease such as cancer requires emotional intelligence and the ability to build trust with patients by delivering information effectively. Doctors also must exhibit cultural humility, so that they can take into account a patient’s social background when administering care. For the foreseeable future, machines probably will not be able to match humans in helping chronically ill patients whose prognosis remains uncertain.