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Why doctors will never be totally replaced by machines

Wednesday 19th October 2016
Doctors will never be able to be replaced with artificial intelligence, according to a new report. Image: ANNECORDON via iStock
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Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly sophisticated and advanced, and is starting to be more prominently used in healthcare environments as a result. But could machines ever replace doctors and nurses?

A new research paper from Harvard Medical School in the US has taken a look at this theory to explore whether or not machines will ever be able to take over the roles of trained medical professionals.

The rise of machines in healthcare

Scientists have created robots of high intelligence that are able to recognise patterns of symptoms in order to make a clinical diagnosis, so researchers set out to examine if this ability could match the expertise of doctors in the first ever study to compare computer-generated diagnoses with those of humans.

The team measured the accuracy of specially-built symptom-checker apps against doctors in diagnosing a range of illnesses to test the theory of whether healthcare professionals could have their role taken by machines.

It was found that doctors correctly diagnosed patients after being presented with a list of symptoms almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of the time, while machines were only able to achieve the same feat on 34 per cent of occasions.

What's more, 84 per cent of doctors successfully narrowed diagnosis down to 3 potential options based on the range of symptoms, but machines managed this just 51 per cent of the time in comparison.

Overall, trained clinicians correctly diagnosed an illness more than twice as often as machines, highlighting that artificial intelligence and digital apps are nowhere near as accurate as doctors who have undergone years of training.

Doctors still made diagnostic errors in between 10 and 15 per cent of cases, but they still significantly outperformed machine options. However, the study authors believe that machines will play a key role in assisting them in diagnoses in the future rather than replacing them.

Why machines will never replace doctors

Ateev Mehrotra, lead author of the study, stated: "While the computer programmes were clearly inferior to physicians in terms of diagnostic accuracy, it will be critical to study future generations of computer programmes that may be more accurate.

"Clinical diagnosis is currently as much art as it science, but there is great promise for technology to help augment clinical diagnoses. That is the true value proposition of these tools."

This suggests that machines are likely to become increasingly beneficial in assisting doctors and other medical professionals with patient diagnoses, but the role of artificial intelligence will go no further. A human touch is vital for effective healthcare and to help patients on the road to recovery, and there is no way that robots could ever emulate that.

What's more, there is always a chance that a doctor could spot additional symptoms in a patient that a machine may not be programmed to spot. As a result, there is unlikely to ever be a situation where doctors will be replaced with machines, despite their expected increased reliance on them for data and symptom analysis.

Written by James Puckle

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