"Doctor, will they replace you with a robot?" Are we going to face robots and machines as doctors and nurses in the hospitals of the future?

by Jan Feil

That is a question Ronjana Srivastava, an Australian oncologist, was asked by a patient and she was very surprised to hear it in the first place. But is it really that surprising that automation now also threatens jobs outside of blue-collar professions and that robots may become the doctors of the future?

In China the first robot with artificial intelligence has passed its medical exam. Is this an indication of what the future will look like ? Robots and machines are already part of our health-care-system and here prove to be efficient savers of time and costs as they can give speedier diagnoses and suggest more effective therapies. Dr. Srivastava also mentions robots that can detect the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease by recognizing typical eye patterns. Another example are robots that operate on an area of the body which surgeons simply cannot access as well with a further advantage being that the chance of an error through the robot is very low.
Thus, through better technologies more cancer could be detected and treated earlier. However, Dr. Srivastava remains uncertain whether these quick diagnoses could lead to over-diagnosing, citing breast and prostate cancer as two examples. Small abnormalities that may never result in harm during a lifetime could be detected and deemed cancerous by the machines.

But what is the real problem with overdiagnosis ?
As an oncologist Dr. Srivastava has had first hand experience with the – often marginalized – psychological harm associated with a diagnosis of cancer and the anxiety that accompanies its treatment. Since a machine cannot rely on experience and evaluate whether abnormalities usually associated with cancer may in fact cause it, the robot can also cause major psychological harm.
Furthermore, we also have to factor in the ethical and legal implications of robots and whether they should perform as doctors.

Wearable health-technologies like trackers, robot-assisted surgery and AI-aided diagnoses are here to stay and will definitely help to improve our lives but only as a complement in the evaluation of Dr. Srivastava: “We don’t remember machines, but no one forgets the experience of someone holding a hand, sitting through tears, explaining things and listening”. This clearly shows that the emotional treatment is too important to exchange it with machines. But it will be interesting to watch what will be possible in the medical system with the help of robots and AI.

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