UK doctors skeptical AI will fully replace them

While most physicians are skeptical AI will fully replace them in the future, many do believe the technology will be able to make prognoses and undertake some administrative tasks, according to a survey of 740 general physicians in the United Kingdom.

“Most experts in AI fields argue that medicine will be ‘revolutionized’ by innovations in machine learning," Charlotte Blease, PhD, Irish Research Council-Marie Curie Research fellow at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, and co-researchers wrote in a research article published in PLOS One. "To the extent that some of these experts view core tasks as replaceable by machines, our findings suggest a disconnect between the opinions of practicing (general practitioners) and informaticians."

The potential of big data and machine learning has become a major topic of debate in the healthcare industry, with some experts stating AI, or machine-level intelligence, will be capable of replacing the basic medical professionals by 2050, according to researchers. However, some industry experts believe AI and future technology is being designed to augment, not replace, physicians.

For the study, researchers asked hundreds of doctors their thoughts about the impact AI on physicians and if it will someday replace their work. Specifically, researchers asked about the likelihood that future technology will be able to fully replace—not just aid—the average doctor in performing six primary care tasks and how many years would it could take.

The tasks included: analyzing patient information to reach diagnoses; analyzing patient information to reach prognoses; evaluating when to refer patients to other health professionals; formulating personalized treatment plans; providing empathic care to patients; and providing documentation, such as updating medical records about patients.

The findings revealed:

  • 94 percent of doctors believed it’s unlikely AI or future technology can fully replace physicians in delivering empathic care.
  • 68 percent said it’s unlikely future technology can fully replace physicians in diagnosing patients. Of the those who believed it was likely, 35 percent said the technology with the capacity to do so would emerge in the next 10 years.
  • 61 percent said it’s unlikely future technology will be able to refer patients to other specialists. Of the 39 percent who believed replacement was likely or extremely likely, 58 percent estimated the technological capability would arise within 10 years, while 15 percent estimated it would within the next four years.
  • 61 percent said it’s unlikely future technology will be able to formulate personalized treatment plans. Of the 39 percent who disagreed, about 12 percent estimated that the technological capacity will be available within four years.

When it came to prognostics, 53 percent of doctors said it’s likely future technology can fully replace physicians in making prognoses, with 49 percent stating that will happen within the next 10 years. Additionally, 80 percent stated it’s likely future technology will be able to fully undertake documentation, with 79 percent stating that will happen within the next 10 years.

Based on the results, the authors said “evidence of disparities in opinions between respondents and AI experts also warrants further exploration” and “more information is needed to compare the beliefs and attitudes of physicians working across different specialties with those of AI experts.”