Artificial intelligence, wearable sensors, virtual reality, medical robots – these disruptive technologies are completely changing the way patients and doctors think and act about healthcare. It also seems inevitable that medical robots, automation and artificial intelligence will replace many jobs in healthcare. But as with other fields of innovation, there will be areas which will thrive with the help of new technologies.
No More Repetition – Doctors of the Future Will Treat and Innovate
Surgical robots become increasingly precise every day, man-sized machines can lift and transport patients throughout the hospital, while it only takes the Xenex robot 10 minutes to disinfect a patient room with UV light.
Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla once said technology would replace 80% of doctors in the future, because machines will be more accurate, objective and cheaper than the average doctor. He added that we eventually would not need doctors at all.
I disagree. Instead, technology in some specialties will finally allow doctors to focus on what makes them good physicians: treating patients and innovating, while automation does the repetitive part of the work. There are at least six specialties in healthcare which will benefit from technological revolution.
1) General practice
Many doctors choose this specialty today because in doing so they have a chance to make a long-term impact on someone’s life. And it is true that GPs enjoy tremendous trust from their patients. But seeing someone only when they are feeling sick makes it difficult to prevent disease and ensure someone’s well-being. It is even harder to do so when waiting rooms are overcrowded, and you only have 15 minutes to diagnose illness, design a therapy and offer health advice.
Wearable sensors and devices that stream data to a doctor’s smartphone, notifying them whenever vital signs are acting up will provide them with all the necessary data for providing care.
These will also ensure doctors only treat those who really need professional care, making it possible to offer simple treatment advice remotely. In turn, this will increase the time GPs have to treat and advise each patient, building trust and ensuring patients act on the doctor’s advice. What’s more, smart algorithms will ensure the GP can tap expert advice on rare disease and act as a gatekeeper to other specialties.
2) Obstetrics and gynaecology
Ob/GYN physicians today have a very limited window of time for assessing the status and health of a baby or the pregnant mother. Wearable devices that monitor the mother’s and the child’s vital signs will ensure that in case of an emergency, delivering care will not depend on the mother’s luck.
Though from an ethical point of view it is a very controversial area, cheap genome sequencing from the mother’s blood and genome editing methods like CRISPR might well make it possible for Ob/GYNs to correct any genetic conditions in utero.
IBM’s Medical Sieve shows artificial intelligence algorithms can scan hundreds of radiology images in seconds, doing the repetitive job of finding malignant or out of place phenomena radiologists have to do daily.
This will not replace this important specialty – instead, radiologists will have time to supervise how the algorithm is doing, or they will have time for research and innovation that can make technology behind devices even better. Their future will be much more exciting than checking hundreds of X-rays a day.
This specialty will bring science fiction technologies to patients in the near future. Retinal implants might give vision back to those who lost it or grant humans supervision augmenting what we can do. Digital contact lenses could transform both how we look at the world while also revolutionizing diabetes care. Google aims to produce digital, multi-sensor contact lens which will be able to measure blood sugar levels.
According to the plans, a wireless antenna, thinner than a human hair, will act as a controller to communicate information to the wireless device. Data will then be sent to an external device.
5) Sports medicine and rehabilitation
The first swarm of activity trackers focused completely on people who exercise regularly, but only provided basic insight into how they were performing. Now, a new generation of devices tailored to professional athletes is hitting the market like GymWatch and Wahoo.
With detailed insight into movement patterns and force output in any movement, sports medicine physicians will have concrete data to measure how athletes are improving. By the time these reach everyday people, sophisticated algorithms will be ready to analyze data from these devices and provide personalized suggestions to improve performance and speed up recovery. Video consoles from XBox to Microsoft Kinect offer a way of monitoring how the patient is doing from a distance by seeing their progress literally on screen.
This specialty will pave the way for personalized medicine. Already, oncologists customize therapies based on the patient’s genetic background and their tumor’s molecular makeup. Cheaper genome sequencing and measuring blood biomarkers are speeding up this process. With companies like Grail working on fluid biopsies, which could filter tumor cells from blood samples, tumors could soon be diagnosed earlier and analyzed without costly surgery.
What’s more, artificial intelligence could soon be used to help oncologists understand and cure cancer. A great example is IBM Watson. The cognitive computer obtains all relevant information from millions of studies about a patient’s case and suggests treatment plans that are likely to work.
In the meantime, patients are better informed about their disease thanks to social media communities of fellow patients such as SmartPatients. These signs all point to a bright future for oncology.
More Time for Patients and Better Insight into Disease
All in all, many jobs will be taken over by robots and automation in the coming years. But awesome opportunities will also emerge, especially in medicine – if only physicians can acquire new skills and improve their existing ones. Many specialties will have more time for patients, and better insight into disease. Thus, it is up to each of us to hone our skills and make ourselves irreplaceable in this brave, disruptive new world of healthcare.