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Meet RoboDoc: Could Robots Make Doctors Obsolete?

08/24/2015 04:59 pm ET

If you've ever felt the first twinge of a headache and immediately headed over to Google to look up your symptoms and find a potential treatment, you could be inadvertently contributing to a vision of the future. One where our regular GPs are replaced with automated diagnosis and robots.

Nor are you alone for that matter. A recent survey in the UK by The UK Digital Health Report, found that 1 in 4 adults were seeking diagnosis online and that this rate was increasing by a massive 20 percent per year.

Experts are now predicting that a combination of technological advancements and robotics could soon render much of a doctors' role in health care redundant. With patients able to self-diagnose using continuously improving technology and a growing uptake in its use, it seems the experts may be right.

The trend for Internet self-diagnosis is already global; millions of people every day look up their symptoms and seek treatments without ever seeing a doctor.

A visit to the GP or a tap of an App

The app market too has been flooded with systems designed to help us monitor our health, diagnose our own symptoms and find the right treatment for our problem. There are apps for pregnant women to time and monitor their contractions, apps to help track blood pressure, apps which allow users to undergo an eye test and even apps that indicate possible serious ill health, such as cancer. In all cases there is no doctor involved where once they would have been a central feature.

Surgery

But what about the procedures that require a human touch? What about the keyhole surgery, the open-heart procedures, the appendectomies that need a keen eye and a steady hand?

It turns out that technology is making waves in surgery too - robotics in surgery is an unstoppable emerging trend. 'Robot doctors' are already being used to carry out minimally invasive surgeries, and new robots are being created for the purpose of carrying out specific and increasingly complex surgeries. The benefits include minute and minimal incisions and therefore much less collateral cost to the patient.

Developments from companies like 'da Vinci Surgery', a developer of technologies in surgical robotics, means that although now a surgeon is still off-screen, eventually scientists emulating the da Vinci technology, will make robots that go fully autonomous.

The Robot effect elsewhere

In recent years, technology has disrupted the transport sector. Services like Uber are revolutionising the way we get from A to B. Yet while a service such as Uber reduces the need for taxi operators and cabbie it does not remove them entirely.

Enter robots (or the self-driving car) and things start look very bleak for the taxi driver. Reports are clearly indicating robots have a much better safety record too (once fully optimised that is).

"Self-driving cars are actually safer than those vehicles driven by humans," Bob Lutz, former General Motors vice chairman, told CNBC in 2014. Other human drivers reportedly caused all of the Google self-driving car accidents too.

Could this be an insight into what lies ahead for the medical profession? Are doctors set to be replaced? Will we be better off?

The answer is that it is very likely the consumer will be in safer hands (eventually) with a robot.

Is health care ready for robotic revolution?

Private health care is an extremely profitable industry and the efficiencies robotics offers to transport and production will apply here too. The business models and professionals in this space will face radical change.

The fact is the prospect of robotics is creating new economic models. Recently a factory in China's Dongguan City replaced 90 percent of its workforce with robots. Productivity soared by 162 percent in the first year.

It makes sense to predict that a combination of advanced robotics, ease of access to high-quality medical information, and increasingly refined 'self-diagnosis' apps will make large chunks of a doctor's duties obsolete.

"Looking to the future we see that change is inevitable," says Victoria O'Connell, who is leading research by JDP Limited into the future of health tech and robotics. "It is clear from our own study that autonomous robotic procedures will be commonplace in hospitals and capable of performing complex surgeries within the next two decades. Consumer trust, a proven safety record and efficiency will see this organic trend continue to accelerate."

As with Uber and the Parisian backlash the ride-sharing app experienced this summer, anticipate resistance to the trend, but robodoc is on his way.

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