In a conversation with a young doctor recently, she sighed as she considered her future as a physician.
“I just don’t think my job is going to really exist in a decade or two,” she said. “It’s all going to be computers and nurse physician assistants.”
It’s a scary thought — that doctors as we know them — won’t have a role in providing medical care in the future. But is it true?
The applications to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are always illuminating as to what is on the horizon in the world of science and technology. Patents reflect those innovations that may or may not have a business plan or a market, but often reflect the direction that technology is headed more generally.
So I was interested to note that Google is developing an electronic health record (EHR) that uses machine learning to predict clinical outcomes.
As Fierce Healthcare reports, “Google appears to have plans to develop its own electronic health record (EHR) for clinicians that gathers patients’ medical records and then leverages machine learning to predict clinical outcomes, according to a patent application."
So is this patent application, backed by tech's behemoth, a harbinger of the inevitable phase-out of doctors?
I don't think so. True enough: it’s almost certain that the role of computers in our practice of medicine will continue to increase. But the truth is that doctors' core role is so much more essential and irreplaceable than any diagnosis, computer-assisted or otherwise. Ultimately, physicians are healers. And a computer can diagnose. A computer can perhaps even treat. But it takes a human being to truly heal another.
That said, I believe that for medicine to be truly resilient -- for healthcare providers to continue to be relevant into the future, we need to lean into the art and humanity of medicine. The trend over the last couple of decades has been to reward providers who treat medicine like a complex factory -- the more efficiently and flawlessly you can move through the heap of patients, the more you are rewarded. But I believe that we are beginning to experience a shift. And into the future, simply being efficient and precise is not going to be our path forward.
I believe that medical collaboration with our very human colleagues is a crucial part of leaning into that art and humanity. It's a tool that we can use to treat the whole patient, and do so with true thought. Our practice will likely be assisted by machine learning and artificial intelligence in the future. But if we're doing our jobs right, that assistance simply can't replace us.