Dr. Ken’s Corner: Doctors Express Mixed Feelings About Artificial Intelligence

The potential impact of computer-driven artificial intelligence has divided the physician community into two camps: those who are fearful of AI and those who embrace it.  Many mid-career physicians say AI presents a grave risk to preserving the time-honored doctor-patient relationship.  On the other hand, newly minted physicians have grown up using computer-driven information and are more likely to accept AI as an exciting and “fun” way to practice medicine.

In some specialties the potential benefits of AI are clear.  For example, “the days of radiologists spending countless hours meticulously scanning thousands of X-rays, CTs and MRIs are numbered,” says John Vartanian of Medical Imaging Resources.  “By filtering out the normal cases, computers can direct the clinician to inspect any concerning findings that may be present in the minority of images,” (HeallthCare Business News, March 2018).

Pathologists also stand to benefit from AI.  As whole slide imaging technology becomes commonplace, computers will separate normal patterns from the abnormal.  “Mirroring the revolution in radiology,” says Vartanian, “pathologists can expect these technologies to help them manage an ever-growing patient population more efficiently, reallocating time to the complex cases that require the time and care of an expert diagnostician.”

But other practitioners worry about AI’s potential downside.  The rise of computer-generated algorithms to diagnose and treat patients is of particular concern in primary care and specialties that require face-to-face communication with patients.  There’s a real fear in these circles that digital diagnostics will threaten the individuality of physicians by devaluing their clinical knowledge, experience, and intuition.  Instead of being autonomous, decision-making diagnosticians, these doctors fear that they will be relegated to a role that simply translates whatever medical information is generated by “self-thinking” technologies.

Love it or hate it, AI is about to reach a “tipping point,” driven in large part by patients, better known in this context as “consumers.”  A recent survey by Accenture found that “consumers increasingly expect to use digital technologies to control when, where, and how they receive care services,” says Kaveh Safavi, M.D., managing director of Accenture’s global healthcare business.  “By harnessing digital technologies in this way, healthcare will increasingly tap digital technologies to empower human judgment, free up clinician time and personalize care services to put control in the patients hands.”

According to Accenture’s survey, forty-four percent of its participants said they had accessed their electronic medical records over the past year.  The survey also found that “consumer use of mobile and tablet health apps has tripled over the past four years, from 16 percent in 2014 to 48 percent today.”  Thirty-three percent of those surveyed reported using wearable medical devices to monitor health parameters such as glucose and heart rate.  And one quarter said they received virtual care services within the past year, up from 21 percent a year ago.  Nearly half of those respondents said they prefer a more immediate virtual medical appointment over a delayed in-person appointment.  Only 29 percent said they prefer visiting their physician in person.

As scary as this may sound to some doctors, they can be rest assured that artificial intelligence will never be able to replicate the human capacity for empathy and compassion.