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Will machine learning make doctors obsolete?

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The question of whether machine learning programs will eventually replace human physicians is an interesting one. It has its basis in technological advancements that we’ve already seen – and some that are coming down the pike – as well as our understanding of how Western medicine works, even in a data-driven world.

The first point to note is that technology has made enormous strides in getting good at diagnosis and evaluating radiology, and generally making data-driven decisions. So what do we need physicians for?

Well … let’s also look at what doctors typically do in today’s high-tech environment. They utilize computers and other technology.

One of the best examples is electronic medical record (EMR) and electronic health record (EHR) systems. Where doctors used to work on paper, they now utilize offerings from software vendors that digitize and automate much of their work. For example, EMRs and EHRs already help doctors with the process of diagnosing conditions.

In light of this, it makes much more sense to suggest that tomorrow’s medical world will be a collaboration between human and machine. Doctors will control the technologies that make those decisions, and the doctors will provide key human oversight to those decisions.

While machine learning programs have become tremendously helpful in making data-driven decisions, they’ve arguably become so powerful that we don’t want to depend on them independently to make our medical decisions. Experts cite the “black box phenomenon” where we don’t really fully understand how these machine learning programs work. In that sense, it’s critical to have a human agent involved, in order to second-guess the results of the machine learning system and place those results in the proper context.

There are two additional points that suggest we will still utilize human doctors in the future. One is liability. How do you assess the eventual liability that comes from following the decisions of the computer?

The other one involves how we as humans like to receive our healthcare. Early efforts to entirely digitize healthcare outcomes have not been popular, and have not worked very well. Patients generally want to talk to a doctor, not consult a computer. There is even the understanding that people avoid using the internet to self-diagnose conditions, because this is not how they want to approach medicine.

A more refined look at how doctors work today suggests that they will work in much the same way in the future, although the technologies will become more and more powerful and allow clinicians to do more for patients over time.

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Justin Stoltzfus
Justin Stoltzfus

Justin Stoltzfus is an independent blogger and business consultant assisting a range of businesses in developing media solutions for new campaigns and ongoing operations. He is a graduate of James Madison University.Stoltzfus spent several years as a staffer at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Penn., before the merger of the city’s two daily newspapers in 2007. He also reported for the twin weekly newspapers in the area, the Ephrata Review and the Lititz Record.More recently, he has cultivated connections with various companies as an independent consultant, writer and trainer, collecting bylines in print and Web publications, and establishing a reputation…