Thinking About Robotic Physicians

I have had a long term interest in enhancing the human condition using technology in a positive way (which is the main reason I wrote Accessibility for Everybody). For example, I explored how exoskeletons can help those who don’t have use of their legs to walk as if they did. The Robotics in Your Future post started things off though by reviewing the topic of robotics as they relate to humans. Recently I read an article about robotic physicians in ComputerWorld. The robot is simply a method for a real person to interact with a patient over a distance. Using the robot’s functionality, a doctor can perform a number of checks on a patient and learn what has gone wrong. The technology is obviously in its infancy at this point, but I already had questions about it as soon as I read the article.

While writing Determining When Technology Hurts, I tried to consider the negative aspects of a particular technology. For example, a doctor doesn’t have a face-to-face environment in which to interact with the patient in this case. Consequently, the doctor could miss subtle cues as to the actual issues that a patient faces. This sort of technology depends on the doctor’s ability to use instruments that are attached to a robot in a remote location. The doctor may not even know whether the instruments are fully functional and providing accurate information. I’m sure the technology will eventually include safeguards (and may even include some now), but these concerns are something that we as a society must ponder before making the technology generally available. Of course, there is the major issue of dealing with the human reaction to a robotic doctor. I’m sure many people will refuse to the submit to the cold hand of technology in place of the warm hands of a real doctor.

Even with these concerns, however, there is real potential for the robotic physician. For one thing, you can find any number of articles online about the expected shortfall in doctors. There simply won’t be enough doctors to go around at some point. Some plans for addressing this shortfall include using nurses to perform more of the work normally associated with doctors. Of course, because a nurse doesn’t have the same level of training, there are some serious issues with this approach. The robotic physician could help address the shortfall, especially in rural areas where patients typically have to wait now for the one day a week that a specialist visits.

The robotic physician could also fill in when there is no doctor available. Smaller, isolated communities could finally have a doctor available, even if that doctor isn’t physically present. A robotic doctor will also be necessary as our ventures into space increase. It’s also easy to imagine larger nursing homes staffing a robotic doctor who could help with critical patients until physical help can arrive and take over. The loss of life will be reduced in such situations because the doctor could be there in seconds. In short, this is an exciting development in technology that will have practical uses as long as we’re careful in applying it.

How would you react to a robotic doctor? Would you even let it touch you? I would imagine that human reluctance will be one of the major issues we’ll have to overcome, but I’d like to hear your take on the matter at