Can AI make doctors obsolete? Yes and no

While some believe AI’s increased role in medicine can result in physicians becoming obsolete, others don’t believe AI or machines will ever be able to deal with the social factors that go into illnesses. Three researchers argued both sides in a head-to-head commentary piece recently published in The BMJ.

Jorg Goldhahn, deputy head of the Institute for Translational Medicine at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, argued that AI has the potential to be more accurate than doctors, causing them to eventually become obsolete. AI systems have a “near unlimited capacity” for data processing, learning and self-correction and can do so at a speed humans can’t match, he noted.

AI systems also have the ability to be more accurate at making diagnoses in some specialties, more reliable, less biased and less unstable than physicians, while also being a cheaper solution in a healthcare industry that’s continuing to see rising costs, he said.  

“Doctors as we now know them will become obsolete eventually. In the meantime, we should expect stepwise introduction of AI technology in promising areas, such as image analysis or pattern recognition, followed by proof of concept and demonstration of added value for patients and society,” Goldhahn concluded. “This will lead to broader use of AI in more specialties and, sooner than we think, human doctors will merely assist AI systems. These systems will not be perfect, but they will be constantly perfecting themselves and will outperform human physicians in many ways.”

Though other researchers––Vanessa Rampton, with the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy, and Giatgen A. Spinas, emeritus professor with the University Hospital in Zurich––understand the potential of AI, they don’t believe it will ever be able to replicate the intimacy of the patient-doctor relationship.

“There are no algorithms for such situations, which change depending on emotions, non-verbal communication, values, personal preferences, prevailing social circumstances, and so on. Those working at the cutting edge of AI in medicine acknowledge that AI approaches are not designed to replace human doctors entirely,” Rampton and Spinas wrote.

The two argued that machines can augment the tasks of physicians but will never be able to replace them entirely, because physicians will always be better at dealing with the patient as a whole person. Additionally, they said AI reaches its limits when its confronted with emotional, social and non-quantifiable factors that contribute to illness.

“A likely future scenario will be AI systems augmenting knowledge production and processing, and doctors helping patients find an equilibrium that acknowledges the limitations of the human condition, something that is inaccessible to AI,” the two concluded. “Coping with illness often does not include curing illness, and here doctors are irreplaceable.”