Will robots replace doctors?
Will robots replace doctors?
Information and communications technologies are playing an increasingly important role in healthcare delivery, while robots promise to revolutionise surgery and homecare. We speak to Daniel Susskind, author of The Future of the Professions, about what it means for health professionals and patients.
How will technology impact healthcare workers?
Daniel Susskind: We see two futures unfolding. The first is a future which many in the medical profession will find reassuring: it’s a more efficient version of what we have today. In this scenario, technologies help to streamline and optimise healthcare. This is already under way – doctors are using Skype to speak with patients and bringing online material into surgeries. Building on this will not radically change how people in healthcare work.
The second future is one where technology – computers, robots and so on – actively displace the traditional roles of health professionals. For example, by diagnosing cancer, delivering treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, and using robots to replace or complement the work of carers.
Which is more likely?
Daniel Susskind: For now, we can see that both are happening but in the long run, the second future will dominate.
Will robots replace doctors and nurses?
Daniel Susskind: In the medium term, this is not a story of unemployment but of redeployment. We talk a lot about jobs – doctors and nurses – but that’s thinking about it at too high a level. It encourages us to think of what they do as indivisible lumps of work. Actually they perform lots of tasks and activities which change over time.
Anecdotally, nurses’ tasks are very different today when compared with a generation ago. If you go back 25 years, it was more likely to be about bedpans and bedside conversation. Today, nurses can prescribe some medicines and perform minor procedures.
In the medium term, technologies will change the tasks and activities that people are required to do. But doctors will not turn up for work one morning and find a robot sitting in their seat.
How should the education system respond to the changes you have identified?
Daniel Susskind: Education is responding in two ways: by changing what we teach professionals and how we teach it. Both of those things haven’t changed a great deal for a long time.
Secondary schools and professional schools tend to train people to do things that machines are very good at: learning vast bodies of knowledge so that they can be regurgitated later. Those are precisely the tasks that machines are capable of.
How can today’s professionals prepare for the future?
Daniel Susskind: They can either compete with machines by doing the sort of things that machines cannot do well – such as being creative or empathetic – or they can build and design the machines that professionals will work with.
How have health professionals responded to your ideas?
Daniel Susskind: We look at eight professions in the book and the reactions have been quite different. If you talk to accountants, they are quite excited by the technologies that are on the horizon. Lawyers are more conservative, journalists are resigned to the changes that are coming, and doctors are angry at others having a view on their profession.
What we need to remember is that it is not the purpose of ill-health to provide a living for doctors, nor is it the purpose of the law to provide lawyers with work. The goal of establishing professions was to solve a problem that existed at the time.
Let’s not have the tail wagging the dog. Think what these changes will mean for patients – the recipients of health services.
How should regulators respond to the changing role of doctors?
Daniel Susskind: The challenge is to ensure the regulatory environment is fit for purpose in a world where it is not just professionals that deliver care. We advocate liberalisation but that doesn’t mean deregulation. It’s not a free-for-all; it’s about rethinking the environment as part of a new ‘grand bargain’.
Will technological innovations exacerbate global health inequality?
Daniel Susskind: Interestingly, what we see is that it’s the other way around. New technologies offer us ways to provide access to affordable healthcare. For example, systems can provide diagnostics to regions where previously there was very little quality diagnostic services available. This has the power to deliver better outcomes for large numbers of people.
This blog is part of the MedTech Forum blog series. Daniel Susskind will speak at the MedTech Forum in Brussels, on 1st December. More information about the Forum is available at medtechforum.eu and under #MTF2016.