The future of doctors

The Economist this week has an important leader and report on the future of work that has key implications for technology adoption by clinicians.  It is well worth reading in full. For those who cannot, the very basic issue raised is that technology is again replacing labour with capital. In the past this has always resulted in higher value jobs being created. This time though, there are many suggesting that it might just be different: some people will run out of road.

The Economist article does not go into the detail of many individual professions, however the description of the types of work most suited to this next wave of automation does cover much of the field of medicine (as, coincidentally I argued recently in my predictions for 2014). A particularly relevant section in the article is:

The machines are not just cleverer, they also have access to far more data. The combination of big data and smart machines will take over some occupations wholesale;

…which supports my contention:

And just think too, what correlations a single system overseeing the treatment of tens of thousands of people, with access to regular vital signs and other information on progress for each one of them, might be able to spot to enable it to improve patient care, that elude the best of GPs treating far fewer. Doubtless increasing genomic analysis & knowledge will enhance this too. –

So how should doctors react? Clearly one view, which seems still to be the minority approach (and that Telehealth & Telecare Aware is really all about trying to encourage) is to use existing technology, like telehealth and mHealth, to improve healthcare and reduce its cost. Automation is expensive so investors will look for those professions where the expected returns are highest; with this approach, the greatest benefits from automation will lie in other professions, so the greatest impact of automation on the medical profession will be delayed.

The alternative, which still seems to be the majority view, is to argue for the continuation of current practice and ignore the benefits of technology (and ignore the evidence that demographic changes will mean that the ratio of careworkers to those requiring care will render the current system infeasible anyway). That way will keep the cost of care relatively high and promote a crisis in the delivery of healthcare relatively soon, making early profound medical automation particularly attractive.

Of the two, from a patient point of view, earlier rapid automation looks superficially attractive although the chaos of rapid change will likely create many challenges that make it less attractive – let’s hope that the leaders in the medical profession, and those who appoint them, read the Economist this week and recognise the benefits to them (as well as to patients) of early technology adoption.

Categories: Latest News and Soapbox.