• December 13, 2016

Med School or Machines: Could Robot Docs Replace Humans?

Can robots outperform pathologists and surgeons?

Pathologists are specialists trained to recognize and diagnose disease. When doctors want to know whether a tissue sample contains cancer, and if so, what kind, they send it to a pathologist.

But maybe not for long.

In a recent study at Stanford, computers beat pathologists in diagnosing lung cancer and predicting survival times. That’s a pretty big deal, considering pathologists have four years of med school, four years of residency, and often years of experience behind them.

But despite all the training, much of pathology remains subjective. Sixty percent of the time, two pathologists looking at the same slide will disagree about a diagnosis.

The computers, on the other hand, were fed over 2,000 images from a national database and trained through machine learning to identify nearly 10,000 traits related to cancer—far more than a pathologist’s eyes could ever detect.

Other studies show that computers can be trained to “think like a doctor,” sometimes achieving better results. In the future, Extreme Tech speculates, computers may lower the status of medical specialists, eventually taking over everything they do that doesn’t involve physical labor.

Actually, they’re getting pretty good at the physical part, too.

Stitch Me Up, STARbot

In another recent breakthrough, a robot performed better than surgeons at sewing up pig intestines. Stitches made by the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) were more consistent and more resistant to leaks, the study found.

Even when their skill doesn’t exceed doctors’, robots are playing an increasingly important role in the operating room. Doctors use them to assist with knee replacements, Lasik eye surgery, and hair transplants, eliminating some of the tedium involved in the procedures. They even do minimally invasive heart surgery using robotically operated tools.

Within five years, one in three U.S. surgeries is expected to be performed by a doctor-robot combination.

It makes sense that robots, with their gigantic databases and laser-like precision, might one day replace or assist physicians with sophisticated tasks in pathology and surgery. But they could never substitute a real-life doctor chatting with ordinary patients to learn what’s wrong with them—or could they?

Dr. Babylon Will See You Shortly

Babylon, a U.K. startup, is developing an app that will record patients discussing their symptoms, and using speech recognition technology, check their problems against a database of diseases and suggest a treatment.

The app, currently in beta, will be able to analyze “hundreds of millions of combinations of symptoms” in real time, said Babylon founder Ali Parsa. It will integrate this information with patients’ medical histories and tell them what to do, though relaying an actual diagnosis is currently illegal.

By recognizing symptoms of onset, the app will be able to predict an illness even before it occurs, Parsa said. Doctors will also obtain results, following up with patients by text, phone, or video chat.

Robots have come a long way since they were first introduced to surgery nearly 30 years ago. Whether they will ever replace doctors entirely is an open question, but without a doubt, you will be seeing more of them in hospitals and clinics.

Like this story? Read about the rise of advanced analytics in Medicaid in this POV paper.