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Dr. Joshua Tepper

I, doctor

Robotic nurses are caring for the elderly and assisting with surgery - computers are helping to diagnose cancer and plan personalized treatment plans. This is not the future, this is happening now.

Welcome to the era of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. Technically nimble and visually adept robots combined with deep learning machines with access to large (and rapidly increasing) amounts of cloud-based data are poised to make unprecedented in-roads into the current technical and cognitive roles of different health care professionals.

Last week was Digital Health Week in Canada, when we acknowledge how digital advances are transforming the delivery of care, and it’s a good time to look at some of the implications of what this means for both health care providers and the patients they work with.

Several recent books, including Rise of the Robot by Martin Ford and The Patient Will See You Now by Dr. Eric Topol, highlight the myriad of ways technology is reshaping health care. The Canadian Senate recently released a report on robotics, AI and 3D printing (the ability to use software and printers to quickly and cheaply reproduce medical supplies). A Senate committee wrote that its members were “amazed at the innovations that were presented during the course of this study, humbled by the ingenuity on display and overwhelmed by the potential impact these disruptive innovations can have on the healthcare system.”

The pace of these changes can be argued and there will undoubtedly be failures and setbacks with many of the new innovations. But it is hard to foresee a fundamental reversal in overall direction.

For many of us that leaves important questions about what will be the key roles for health care professional in this new age. One person who has considered this in some depth is Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Brian Hodges who is also Executive Vice President of Education at the University Health Network. He was a recent speaker at Health Quality Ontario’s Provincial Quality Rounds.

Dr. Hodges notes that in the future much of the knowledge upon which physicians rely will be stored in the cloud or other forms of technology and that health professionals must invest in “understanding the strengths (and blind spots) of their own human cognition”.

“Taking a history and doing a physical exam once allowed MDs to have the chance for human-human interaction... These opportunities are disappearing and are not coming back.” Dr. Hodges notes that health professionals will have to be trained and make an effort to maintain a human presence in the health care system of the future where machines play a much bigger role.

“Compassion is the core of healthcare. It is our job. Period,” he stated.

But even as we strive to maintain this humanity which defines the medical profession, we must be doing more to prepare new and current health professionals for the environment in which they will be working.

“Today’s medical professionals must be masters of different skills that are related to using digital devices or online solutions” and mastering those skills “is now a crucial skill set that all medical professionals require,” said Dr. Bertalan Mesko, a Hungarian physician and geneticist who was interviewed by the Senate committee which prepared the recent report.

The role of health professionals has morphed steadily over the decades and the latest trends in digital information, robotics and learning machines are only going to lead to further change in role and practice. During all of this it remains important that a focus on providing high quality compassionate care for our patients be guiding touchstones during this change.

Robots and computers are certainly part of our future but they need not and should not define the values that underpin what we do.

(This article was first published in The Medical Post online)

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