AI Won’t Take Physicians’ Jobs – But It’ll Free Up Their Time to Talk to Patients

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Emmanuel Fombu, Global Strategy and Digital Innovation Leader at Johnson & Johnson reflects on health professionals’ fears of AI and their place in the healthcare workforce of the future.

Sure, robots might be better at carrying out specific operations or at carrying out monotonous tasks without tiring, but it’s the human touch that makes all of the difference in a healthcare setting.

 

“Robots will take our jobs,” says Larry Elliot in The Guardian. “We’d better plan now, before it’s too late.” Unfortunately for Mr. Elliot, I don’t agree with him. There’s a reason why The Guardian posted it as an opinion piece. It’s factually incorrect.

 

One report from Gartner found that robots are here to give us a promotion instead of taking away our jobs, with AI set to create 2.3 million jobs by 2020. Even when you consider the 1.8 million jobs that it’s set to remove, that’s still an overall increase of 500,000.

Meanwhile, The Verge has reported, “Only 5% of current occupations stand to be completely automated if today’s cutting-edge technology is widely adopted, while in 60% of jobs, one-third of activities will be automated. Quoting a US government commission from the 1960s on the same topic, McKinsey’s researchers summarize: ‘technology destroys jobs, but not work.’ As an example, it examines the effect of the personal computer in the US since 1980, finding that that invention led to the creation of 18.5 million new jobs, even when accounting for jobs lost.”

 

It’s also important to consider that certain industries are more vulnerable than others. The rise of self-driving cars, for example, could threaten the four million Americans who work in driving jobs, representing 2% of total employment. When it comes to physicians, though, it’s a little different. In my first book, The Future of Healthcare: Humans and Machines Partnering for Better Outcomes, I shared an excerpt of a Neil deGrasse Tyson monologue where he responded to a question about whether we should send robots into space instead of human astronauts. “Split the question into two parts,” Tyson said. “Are you only interested in scientific discovery? Send robots. It’s cheaper. You don’t have to bring them home. If you only care about science then there’s no rational reason to send humans, really. But here’s the catch. I’ve never seen a ticker tape parade for a robot. I’ve never seen a high school named after a robot. I never saw a kid read a book about a robot and say, gee, I wanna be that robot one day. There’s value in human inspiration.”

 

The same is true for physicians. Sure, robots might be better at carrying out specific operations or at carrying out monotonous tasks without tiring, but it’s the human touch that makes all of the difference in a healthcare setting. Ask yourself how you’d prefer to find out that you have a terminal disease. Would you rather be told by a chatbot or a virtual assistant, or would you rather be told by a kindly physician who’s on hand to answer your questions and to guide you through what to expect in your final days?

 

In an ideal world, the widespread adoption of AI would also lead to decentralized health records, potentially powered by a blockchain.

 

Unfortunately for patients, primary care physicians are currently spending six hours per day entering data into electronic health record (EHR) systems. This actually equates to them spending more time in front of a computer updating records than they do on face-to-face meetings with their patients. On top of that, these EHRs aren’t delivering the value that they could do, meaning that physicians spend over half their time lining the pockets of EHR providers instead of adding value to patients.

 

The good news is that this state of affairs doesn’t have to continue, and AI could be the answer. Through a combination of artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing, we could automate much of the note-taking and record keeping that’s eating into physicians’ time, freeing them up to spend more time in front of their patients.

 

In an ideal world, the widespread adoption of AI would also lead to decentralized health records, potentially powered by a blockchain. This would hand control of the data back over to patients and allow them to take greater control of their own healthcare. And of course, decentralized data would make it much, much easier for us to monitor population health as a whole and to provide more personalized healthcare to every single patient on the planet.

 

The pessimists will tell you that it’s never going to happen, or they’ll echo Larry Elliot and his Guardian piece. The optimists will tell you it’s going to happen tomorrow. I sit somewhere in the middle, as a realist. We have a lot of work to do, but we’ll get there. We have to.

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