• Artificial intelligence, conceptual illustration.
If the predictions of two New Zealand experts are true, Artificial Intelligence will make doctors redundant in the near future, as AI-bots are designed to test, diagnose and treat disease more efficiently than a human.
By
Yasmin Noone

6 May 2016 - 11:54 AM  UPDATED 6 May 2016 - 11:54 AM

The role of the doctor could soon become redundant, overtaken by forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which will test, diagnose and treat disease just as well as any human medical professional could if not better, two doctors from New Zealand’s Whangarei Hospital predict.

This worldwide robotic vision of the future, estimated to be 10-to-20 years away, the editorial suggests doctors could be eradicated from the payroll with medical assistants, midwives and nurses filling the more human-based skill gaps that AI is unable to perform.

An editorial, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal today, says the secret behind an AI takeover is a unique pattern-recognition algorithm that synthesises and compares a patient’s data to predefined disease categories.

Once a diagnosis is delivered, AI can then recommend an evidence-based treatment, specific to each patient.

Over the coming years, AI will challenge the traditional role of the doctor,” the paper reads.

This autonomous robot surgeon is better at the job than a human
An autonomous robot tasked with performing complex soft tissue surgery on pigs with minimal human supervision has done a better job than an experienced surgeon.

“Human doctors make errors simply because they are human, with an estimated 400,000 deaths associated with preventable harm in the US per year.

“Furthermore, the relentless growth of first world health care demands in an economically-constrained environment necessitates a new solution.

“For a safe, sustainable healthcare system, we need to look beyond human potential towards innovative solutions such as AI.”

“The process is mostly algorithmic. AI can scan an image and detect disease using an algorithm in the same way than a doctor would.”

The paper’s authors foresee that AI could start substituting for human diagnosis in ‘visual’ medical specialties, like radiology, in under a decade. This is because the field already relies heavily on computers to detect symptoms of disease.  

“AI can substitute any medical speciality that uses images, like radiology. Or pathology, and ophthalmology,” editorial co-author, Dr William Diprose, tells SBS.

“The process is mostly algorithmic. AI can scan an image and detect disease using an algorithm in the same way than a doctor would.”

Co-author, Dr Nicholas Buist asks any naysayers to consider the evolution of medicine and the effectiveness of machines over doctors in detecting disease.

“Take the stethoscope – it’s around 200 years old. In university, we are taught to use it to detect illnesses like pneumonia. But if a patient presents with pneumonia, we might not be able to pick it up with a stethoscope. They have to get a scan of their lungs and an ultrasound to find out if they’ve got pneumonia. It’s the same thing.”

IBM has already created an AI known as Watson in the US, that is able to perceive, ‘understand’, and make decisions based on natural language. It is currently being used in cancer care to aid diagnosis and produce management plans for oncology patients.

Dr Dipose explains that even though much of the technology needed for an AI takeover already exists, the speed of change might be slowed by the medical profession itself, who he believes are largely "very traditional in their views and resistant to change”.

Emergency physician and vice president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Stephen Parnis, says an AI takeover could happen but “not in the foreseeable future”.

“Doctors welcome a future with technology," says Dr Parnis. "Were it not for technology we’d not have vaccinations, antibiotics or joint surgery.”

“But AI can’t replace the human element, the sense, the feel, the intuition, that is essential in medicine."

Dr Parnis says that AI already exists working side-by-side medical professionals today. Take the example of robots which are used to assist doctors in neurosurgery to reach brain lesions that are otherwise inaccessible with traditional surgical approaches. However, AI is assisting, not replacing doctors in the provision of more effective medical care.

“But AI can’t replace the human element, the sense, the feel, the intuition, that is essential in medicine,” he says.  

“The doctor patient relationship is often formed over many visits over many years and involves trust and confidence.

“And doctors don’t just diagnose diseases using a list of symptoms and prescribe medications using a formula. Doctors explain complex medical situations to their patients and sometimes help them to understand and accept what is going on.”

Regardless, the paper’s authors believe the change is inevitable. “We will see this change happen in our lifetimes, during our careers.”

A brief history of humans abusing robots
Cutting-edge robotics involves giving robots a hard time - to prove they have what it takes to function in the real world.
Robots in health care could lead to a doctorless hospital
What will our future hospitals look like, and who is responsible when things go wrong?