Question of the Fortnight
Will computers replace doctors?
By the end of the next decade, we may be diagnosing our aches and pains on computers, rather than visiting GPS. This was the future painted by the Health Secretary in September when talking at the NHS Health & Care Innovation Expo in Manchester.
Jeremy Hunt told the conference that by 2028 computers and robots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) may be able to analyse a patient’s blood, and compare it with results from thousands of others.
Would this leave the typical GP twiddling their stethoscope, waiting for patients who never come? It’s what some health professionals fear. They say patients value the face-to-face interaction with a doctor and the chance to ask follow-up questions.
Trisha Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Care at Oxford University, said on Twitter: “What our focus groups of older patients actually want is to be able to phone up and get a human being”. Computers, doctors say, can’t do sensitivity and reassurance, nor pick up subtle visual cues that would lead to a better diagnosis.
Doctors accept that while robots can perform some automated processes, such as dispensing medicine and taking blood, patients might demand a human touch.
Professor John Williams, head of Health Informatics Unit at the Royal College of Physicians, told the website Huffpost: “Modern medicine is a very human partnership between patients and doctors, working together for the best outcome for the patient as a whole”. He claimed it would be “difficult” for robots to replicate the same level of care.
Such views challenge the Health Secretary’s optimistic prediction that “the changes in medical innovation are likely to transform humanity by as much in the next 25 years as the internet has in the last 25 years”.
But doctors do acknowledge that AI can diagnose some conditions faster than they can. NHS England medical director Professor Sir Bruce Keogh said: “It’s possible that certain types of AI will be able to read X-rays. I’ve been told by people who are developing this sort of stuff that’s within a four-year time frame”.
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens told the Expo that the NHS will be investing in AI over the next year. That money could be spent on Dna-screening technology which, Hunt said, will help spot diseases before symptoms appear, “so we have a much better chance of being able to nip illness in the bud”.
But before AI becomes mainstream, another health revolution seems to be on the way. Mr Hunt said that by the end of next year patients should be able to perform seven basic activities on an app “as simply as you can look at your entire order history on Amazon”. These are phoning the non-emergency number NHS 111; accessing personal medical records; booking a GP appointment; ordering prescriptions; choosing to donate organs; selecting how much data to share; and getting support for long-term conditions.
He said that the NHS must do “technology better” if it’s “going to be the safest, highest quality healthcare system in the world”.
However, some doctors say that new technology masks a funding crisis in the NHS. Dr Ben White, who campaigned against the new contract for junior doctors, said: “Hunt must stop using every opportunity to dodge real investment in the NHS”. His comment is a reminder that for NHS staff to embrace technology, the Health Secretary will need to persuade them that it won’t compromise patient care.
What our older patients actually want is to be able to phone up and get a human being