The Day Before Tomorrow: Could technology one day replace doctors?

What would a future without real life doctors be like? Do technological advancements in medicine mean people will soon trust machines laden with data rather than humans?

That was the debate at The Drum’s screening of the first episode from The Day Before Tomorrow series, which explores how technology is disrupting a range of sectors including health, education and finance.

A panel debate with Dr David Cox of Headspace, Lillian Shieh of SapientNitro and The Drum editor Gordon Young followed the screening, and the question of where the fusion of medicine and technology will ultimately take healthcare was on the agenda.

“As we gather more information about ourselves, it might be easier to interact with computers than physical beings who might judge,” said Shieh.

“All of the information gathered by fitness trackers and sensors for example might be uncomfortable. Even if exercising a lot, a person could be indulging in dangerous sexual behaviour or using a lot of alcohol, so you can see why some might be uncomfortable with sharing with a human.”

The Day Before Tomorrow health segment explored the rise of wearable devices which enable individuals to closely monitor basic elements of their health such as diet and exercise, and how connected devices could even provide a direct line between a device and doctors surgery in case of a problem.

However, before doctors even become involved, more and more patients now attend appointments armed with their own online research about their ailment and knowledge about treatments. If online forms working through a data-fuelled process of elimination can inform patients, how could the landscape change if computers were specifically designed to retain and analyse data in a way the human mind can’t? And is it possible a machine could one day turn carer?

“Thinking about Japan right now,” Shieh went on, “they have labour shortages and so have devised robots, machines that can care for elderly people because the population doesn’t have enough helpers to assist with the older population.

“Another area will likely be trying to help people maintain the ability to live alone or independently, and to maintain their health so that there is less worry about having to change lifestyle dramatically in light of a problem.”

However, according to Dr Cox, human involvement and human thought processes in the medical sector will always be needed.

“There’s always going to be a need for doctors, a need for people with experience of having seen this thing many times over,” he said. “Maybe the nature of medical training will change, but there will always be a need for an individual who can make risk benefit analysis, who can make diagnosis based partly on experience and the ability to know from that experience which treatments are more likely to be beneficial to one particular individual rather than harmful. We still need people to make the decisions.”

Shieh added that the emotional element of dealing with healthcare providers is also something that a machine can’t provide.

“The emotional component of interaction is just as important as the interaction itself,” she said. “We’ve become so accustomed to using social networking and digital media as a stand in for those relationships that we would have in person.

“You do wonder if at some point in time we’re going to be able to translate the relationship with a physician to a remote relationship. It’s a question of whether we can really take the physician out of the picture. It’s an interesting question.”

Improved medicine and technology means that humans now live longer than ever, but with that comes a new set of challenges for the health sector. While Japan may be paving the way for greater use of robots in an area of care which is posing bigger and bigger questions for governments, according to Dr Cox, technology may now be on the way to enabling humans to stay as independent and healthy as possible, which will in turn lessen the looming burden on health services.

“We’re getting better at treating things people catch, we can cure much more now, but if you look at the World Health Organisation (WHO) global burden of disease ranking, you find a lot of stuff on there is a problem now because we live long enough for it to become a problem. Our bodies are not designed to live as long.

“If you look at the top rankings of things people don’t catch from other people, most are related to lifestyle, and it’s arguable that we can deal with this by teaching better behaviours to people when they’re young and get involved before people get unwell.

“It brings us back to behavioural change, and that’s the nut we really need to crack.”

Look out for The Day Tomorrow’s other instalments released over the next two weeks covering education, finance, retail, entertainment and smart cities.

AH

Angela Haggerty

All by Angela