How will robots communicate with patients?

Artificial intelligence is developing at pace.  Our mobile phones are filled with an ever increasing plethora of apps.  We no longer need to turn dials, push buttons or remember numbers to get in touch with friends or associates that we’ve not spoken to for years.  Cortana, Alexa and Siri are fast becoming part of our everyday lives.  They bring things to our attention, listen to our needs and take action accordingly.  Driverless cars don’t appear to be that far away.  But, even before we get to that stage, technology in our rapidly developing vehicles can give us directions, control our speed, start emergency braking faster than we can react or even alert us that we may be falling asleep at the wheel.  We are continually learning how to help technology learn so that it can serve us well.

Countless clinical applications already exist and progress is accelerating rapidly.  For some time, apps and instruments have collected data, taken scans and created records.  In the majority of disciplines we now have technology which makes diagnostic recommendations based on comparison of individual results to big data.  There’s even evidence that, in some fields, quantity and quality of information is outstripping our human ability to interpret it.  The ‘machines’ are starting to do it better!  See, for example, the case of technology outperforming retinal specialists in ophthalmology.  As this trajectory continues, clinicians will need to answer a fundamental question:

What are the benefits of being human?

You may or may not be familiar with the activities of the Luddites.  They were a band of 19th century English workers who destroyed new machinery in the belief it enabled factory owners to circumvent accepted manufacturing methods which would lead directly to job losses.  Their focus was driven by fear and self-protection rather than improving efficiency and quality.  Nowadays, their name is used to label anyone resistant to the spread of technology.  Their behaviour also led to the idea of the Luddite Fallacy: technology doesn’t actually lead to job losses – it simply changes the nature of work and the mix of job roles in the economy.  Rather than constantly aiming to prove that humans are better than the machines it helps to be honest.  The machines will be better at some things.  Humans will be better at others.  Let’s ask the question again in a different way:

What can a human do that a machine can’t?

And the answer to that one has to be: less and less as each day passes!

So let’s switch things around and consider healthcare from our patient’s perspective rather than the clinician’s.

What do our patients want?

Access to information?  Yes.  Easy access to services?  Yes.  Accurate, speedy diagnosis?  Yes.  Effective treatment?  Yes.  And again, all these points and more will be increasingly well served through the development of technology.  So, is the patient’s need for a robot fast replacing the need for a doctor?  The Luddite Fallacy informs us that, rather than replacing people, technology changes roles.  Adaptation is essential and this may mean changing focus.

The large proportion of patients are experiencing stress of one type or another.  This stress may be physical, emotional, practical or any combination of the three.  Stress is a complex human reaction.  When added to our patient’s experiences and opinions it opens the door to a plethora of potential behaviours and choices.  Who is best placed to deal with that?  Who should be better at listening, understanding, encouraging disclosure, breaking bad news and helping the person overcome the difficulties they face?  Who should be better at helping people to face their challenges with empathy and compassion?  Computer or human?

The human should be better placed at adjusting to the individual and their unique circumstances than the computer.  They should be better at dealing with patients on a human level.  Sadly, not all doctors live up to this.  Some practice in a functional, automated, dissociated manner.  Some are responding to their own personal stress and deal with patients without the benefits of human connection.  In the long run, it’s quite possible that the machines will be better than them.

The machines are increasingly studying a very important topic:

What does it mean to be human and how can I communicate more effectively?

How much effort are you putting into studying this topic?

Stephen McGuire – Head of Development