Would you trade your doctor for an app?

There is no doubt that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are going to have a significant impact on the health industry. The biggest obstacle, as in many industries, is likely to be trust. However, medical bots and AI may help to alleviate many of the other complaints about health care including cost, convenience and availability. Whether or not you'd trade your doctor for a smart phone app will likely depend in part on whether or not you have access to a doctor at all.

This article from the Australian suggests that automation may benefit many of the countries poor, rural, aboriginal peoples - people who currently have a life expectancy of about 10 years less than the national average. Beyond Australia, aboriginal or otherwise, small rural communities may benefit tremendously from the arrival of AI and robotics.

In Canada and the United States rural communities have limited access to health care, especially when specialists are involved and health care systems have struggled to convince health care professionals to move to such communities.

Robots and computers have no such reservations and, at least in laboratories, have shown a high degree of proficiency in making basic diagnoses. Last year, IBM's Watson reached the same conclusion as human doctors in 99 percent of cases.

One advantage of AI over doctors, rural or not, is cost. whether people pay directly for care, have insurance or are covered under a national health plan, the cost of health care is going up substantially just about every year. AI could reduce that cost by eliminating many primary care visits and even some emergency room visits (in cases where people were 'being cautious'.)

There would also be no need to make an appointment with a doctor as an app. It might even make a few with you. A doctor-as-an-app would be aware of your medical history, pre-existing conditions and genetics. It could remind you, from time to time, to check your weight and blood pressure or to visit a lab for blood tests. It would also be aware of any and all research being published, could alert you to new developments as they pertain to you and monitor public health data for information you should be aware of; from flu strains that are going around to pollution and allergen information that could negatively impact you.

If you told it you weren't feeling well you could enter symptoms and using your medical history and available public health data it could offer advice on what steps to take next. It could also forward your information to a human doctor who could write a prescription based on the data (and have it delivered to you by drone.) It could also simply phone an ambulance and have you rushed to an emergency room.

Beyond that, and this is especially important for rural populations, the AI would be able to send your data to specialists in far off cities, arrange remote consultations when necessary so that you could talk to those specialists in person and, using robotics, surgeons in far off places would be able to operate when travel isn't possible (see the Mayo Clinic website for info).

So, while all of this automation certainly presents challenges (especially in terms of job losses) it also promises to offer greater equality and a better quality of life to millions.

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