Explainer: Can artificial intelligence replace doctors?

Explainer: Can artificial intelligence replace doctors?

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Will the job of future doctors be similar to that of drivers in self-driving cars?

By Toibah Kirmani

Discussions about the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) replacing doctors in the future are aplenty. There is no denying that AI has the potential to greatly enhance healthcare by supporting medical professionals in identifying diseases, evaluating medical imaging, and establishing individualised treatment strategies.

There have been various studies that demonstrate how AI and machine learning can perform specific medical tasks. For instance, researchers trained an AI algorithm to identify skin cancer by showing it more than 100,000 images of skin lesions. The algorithm was tested against 58 dermatologists, and it outperformed them in accurately diagnosing skin cancer. 

Similarly, researchers found that algorithms of machine learning can perform the tasks of radiologists and anatomical pathologists, and improve diagnostic accuracy. In the case of minimally invasive surgeries across specialties, including urology, gynaecology, and general surgery, surgical robots are already making their presence felt in operation theatres. 

Does that mean the job of future doctors will be similar to that of drivers in self-driving cars? Will they only be monitoring what the robots are doing? First Check reached out to Dr Ashish Katewa, Head of the Department of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery, Amrita Hospital, Delhi, India, to get a doctor’s perspective on the contentious issue. 

While AI in healthcare will play a very important role in the coming decades, the doctor reasons that it will not replace physicians. “Instead, it will enable them to serve their patients better. Their decisions will be more evidence-based, accurate, and efficient,” says Dr Katewa. 

Holistic treatment, according to the doctor, involves taking care of a patient’s physical and psychological needs. That’s where empathy comes in. AI, however advanced, cannot be empathetic. One would always need a “human” touch for healing.

“As a child heart surgeon, a significant portion of my job involves counselling parents on heart abnormalities, surgery options, and outlook for their children. It’s usually an emotionally charged discussion, and parents have a lot of anxious questions. I don’t envisage a robot having that conversation,” he maintained. 

It's important to note that AI cannot replace the expertise and human connection that a doctor provides. In many cases, a combination of AI and human healthcare providers may be the best approach for delivering high-quality, patient-centered care.