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Comment: Will robots make doctors obsolete? Nothing could be further from the truth.

The problem of overdiagnosis is often mentioned in relation to two common cancers: breast and prostate. In both cases, enhanced technology is already detecting small abnormalities that may never result in harm during a lifetime. Machine-learning may trump human interpretation but merely making a diagnosis does not bring us closer to the truth about the impact of the finding. In other words, will the cancer ever cause symptoms, and crucially, will the patient die from it? How will the knowledge of cancer alter the rest of a person’s days?

Srivastava, R. (2020). Will robots make doctors obsolete? Nothing could be further from the truth. The Guardian.

I’m not a fan of the way the author starts the article; it feels a bit contrived and unlikely to reflect the patient experience of healthcare around the world. But I think that the point the author is making is that there are certain aspects of healthcare that AI and robots aren’t going to replace (she could probably have just said that?).

So yes, AI is already “better” than human beings in several different areas (e.g. diagnostics, interpretation of findings, image recognition, etc.). But no, that doesn’t mean that healthcare professionals will be replaced. Because being a doctor/physio/nurse means that we are more than interpreters of results; we are human beings in communion with other human beings. While the features of AI in clinical practice don’t mean that we’re going to see the replacement of professions, they do mean that we might see the replacement of tasks within professions.

Unfortunately, the article doesn’t get to this point and simply concludes that, because all the tasks of a doctor can’t be replaced, the question is moot. But it’s the wrong question to ask. We’re not going to replace health care providers with smart humanoid robots but we’ll definitely see changes in professional training and in clinical practice.

The implications of this are that, in order to remain relevant, professions in the near future will need to demonstrate an ability to take advantage of the benefits of advanced technologies while adapting and expanding the relationship-centred aspects of health care.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.