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Opinion: Today's Doctors Are an Endangered Species

Feb. 27, 2018

Artificial intelligence is clearly a threat to physicians … at least as they practice today. One form can identify tuberculosis with nearly complete accuracy; another can diagnose melanoma with greater precision than dermatologists. In the coming years, surgical robots are likely to become more and more autonomous, and health care ’bots that remind you to take medication or offer wellness coaching will become a familiar part of daily life.

But is AI our asteroid, or merely an imperative to adapt? Assuming we’re willing and able to do so, physicians of the future might not be merely different: we might be better.

Here’s what we know:

When it comes to routine cognition, Watson is going to win.

Medical knowledge is increasing so rapidly that unaided physicians are already unable to retain and process it effectively, and no textbook can keep up. It doubled every 50 years around 1950, and every seven years in 1980; by 2020, it is projected to double every 73 days. Add in the increasingly detailed data we collect about our patients, and it’s clear that the human mind will require aids to manage the array and complexity of information relevant to health and care.

Is AI our asteroid, or merely an imperative to adapt? Assuming we’re willing and able to do so, physicians of the future might not be merely different: we might be better.

Clay Johnston, M.D., Ph.D.

Meanwhile, further acceleration of the capabilities of computers to analyze complex data and mimic human cognition will facilitate the transfer of many tasks traditionally completed by human minds and hands to those of Watson (or his descendants, who may or may not find time for appearances on “Jeopardy!”).

A robot’s cold, metallic hand is no substitute for human touch.

The non-analytical, humanistic aspects of medicine will be much more difficult to replace with technology.

We know that the “art of caring” is central to the medical profession. When patients select and recommend doctors, they rely heavily on bedside manner and trust rather than measures of patient outcomes, which are generally unavailable to them. At the same time, patient-practitioner relationships augmented by warmth, attention and confidence have been shown to be superior in improving outcomes.

As AI develops, so too should ‘EI’: physicians must become more emotionally intelligent.

Information escalation and increases in AI are leading toward a dramatic change in the role of the physician, one that will require skills that aren’t taught in many medical schools.

Most allocate substantial time to memorization and analysis, tasks that will become less demanding as artificial intelligence improves. But components of the art of caring — communication, empathy, shared decision-making, leadership and team-building — are underemphasized, when they are emphasized at all. And many schools fail to prepare future physicians to take responsibility for the systems of care that are critical to patient outcomes, leading the changes necessary to provide the best possible care.

It’s essential that medical education leaders rebalance their curricula toward these components. Doing so will help patients receive the best care that man and machine together have to offer. It may be good for physicians as well, as they find more opportunities for meaningful patient communication and delivery of higher-quality care.

Still, even if we adapt, AI remains a threat. It isn’t the medical profession that is endangered, though. Rather, it’s the status quo — today’s doctors, not tomorrow’s — in jeopardy of becoming extinct.

Clay Johnston, M.D., Ph.D., is dean of the Dell Medical School, where a newly developed curriculum reduces the duration of basic science instruction to 12 months and emphasizes group problem-solving rather than memorization, allowing additional time for instruction in the art of caring, leadership and creativity.

The information above is adapted from “Anticipating and Training the Physician of the Future: The Importance of Caring in an Age of Artificial Intelligence,” which will appear in an upcoming edition of Academic Medicine.