We’ve all heard of laparoscopic surgery. It’s a revolution in the operating room that saves time and resources. More importantly, it reduces recovery time, minimizes scars, and in many cases turns what used to be an inpatient ordeal into a simple office visit.
So it’s a little surprising that the world hasn’t yet embraced the idea of “robot” doctors. With scary headlines like these:
- Prepare Yourselves, Robots Will Soon Replace Doctors in Healthcare (Forbes, 2017)
- Robots in Health Care Could Lead to a Doctor-less Hospital (The Conversation, 2016)
It’s no wonder people are having a hard time warming up to the idea. But do they know what they’re actually rejecting? What are we really talking about here? As one writer for Gizmodo put it, he’d be worried and skeptical if he “… was left alone in a cold hospital room with a robot instead of a doctor.”
While that does point out one of the shortcomings of “robots” (they can’t interact with emotion the way humans do), it’s not an accurate view of the future of health care.
Let’s Define ‘Doctor’ and ‘Robot’
It’s likely you’ll never have the emotional connection to an artificial system like the kind you have with your primary care physician. But where it stands right now, the breakthrough technologies that seem to have everyone up in arms isn’t designed to replace them. Instead, they were created to help your doctor take care of you.
And ‘robots’? Let’s get Rosie off our minds because this is not The Jetsons and we’ve come a long way from 1950s-era imaginings of what robots do and what they look like. Sometimes, when people say ‘robot’, they mean artificial intelligence (AI). And as we know, AI comes in many physical forms.
Case in point: would you call Amazon’s Alexa a robot? Of course not. That’s because, if it looked like a cyborg, you’d be far less inclined to have it looming over you in the privacy of your living room. And that FitBit you love? It’s powered by Watson, IBM’s behemoth artificial intelligence system that’s helping to democratize access to personal health.
Today’s ‘Robots’ are Actually AI Devices that Perform Amazing Feats of Healthcare Wonder
Yes, AI can be empowering to humans. Actually, it already is. It’s empowering to everyday people like you and me and it’s also helping doctors do their jobs better. A few examples of both:
- A Skin Cancer App for Doctors. There is now an AI melanoma discovery app for dermatologists that can distinguish between malignant and benign skin lesions. It does just as good a job as a human doctor and is much faster. Since skin cancer screenings are an important part of cancer prevention, this represents a huge step forward. Doctors admit it’s very difficult to find all the malignancies by eye (“like finding a needle in a stack of needles”, according to one doctor).
- Codependent Robot-Doctor Surgery. Next-gen surgical robotics are surpassing what the familiar and ubiquitous da Vinci robot systems can do. They’re helping doctors perform transplants and surgeries on such micro scales that it boggles the mind. Ear surgery is one example, where surgeons have half a millimeter leeway between touching the facial and taste nerves. That narrow space is where an electrode needs to be deposited in cochlear surgery.
- Cute AI Robots. Companion robots that look after your health at home are on the rise. They don’t diagnose, prescribe, or treat but they do help folks stick with the plan their doctors recommended for them. Older Americans, for example, benefit from helpful reminders of when to take their medication. The companion robots can also read facial expressions, call the doctor if necessary, and send important health data to the doctor’s office. It can even sense emotions, according to the website of the leading companion robot, Mabu.
The first two examples are easily palatable to most people: how can you be against tools that help doctors do their jobs? The cute AI robots that roll around senior living complexes or tech-forward homes might be harder to digest, however.
While the helpful possibilities of AI in healthcare really intrigue me, I know that they send shivers up the spines of others. Whether they’re afraid their privacy will be violated, the robots will become hacked, or they’re just plain creeped out, there are a lot of folks who won’t ever consider letting a ‘cute AI robot’ roll into their lives.
We all have the freedom to make those choices — it’s one of the benefits of living in the free world, after all. I just hope that as we move further into the AI-assisted world of health care, people are making informed decisions about this technology that has so much potential.
Are we ready to hand over total health care to AI or robotics? At the moment, it’s a moot question. Companion AI robots aren’t about replacing doctors or caregivers, and robot-assisted surgery is already a generally-accepted and widely practiced technique that you’ll find everywhere from Miami to Portland to Yuma, Arizona.
Doctors are also beginning to embrace the notion of AI-driven analysis on patient records. It gives them the kind of comprehensive view of an individual’s health that’s needed (and very often lacking) in today’s complex health care environment. It’s the kind of Big Picture view that holistic practitioners are always seeking. Now that we have the technology to help doctors who practice traditional Western medicine get the same type of comprehensive view, it might be time for some hopeful support of technology.
So, will your doctor be a robot in 2030?
The answer has yet to be determined. But with the exponential tech advances we’ve seen recently, that could change very soon. Now that you’ve taken this exploratory journey with me on this crucial topic, I’d love to know what you think, especially if you’re a strong proponent of integrative approaches to medicine and natural remedies like I am.
Are you ready to embrace AI-driven robots in your healthcare regimen? For those of us who believe in holistic medicine, we will need to find a philosophical way forward through the tech-driven future of healthcare; because there are just too many benefits to be gained by AI and robotics to ignore.