Why you should care
As artificial intelligence gets better at diagnosing and treating our medical needs, what will become of doctors and nurses?
The first season of The Future of X, in partnership with Providence St. Joseph Health, delves into a subject that touches us all: health. Over four episodes, we explore how treating illness is becoming highly personalized, why hospitals could become obsolete, the technology that might rid us of depression and why dying is becoming more enjoyable. Subscribe now to follow The Future of X on Apple Podcasts or on OZY.com.
When a 60-year-old woman in Tokyo was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2016, she was treated with the usual anti-cancer drugs but didn’t get better. Then her doctors at the University of Tokyo analyzed her health information using Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence system, which has ingested tens of millions of oncology papers and data from international research institutes. Watson took just 10 minutes to compare the patient’s genetic changes with the database and found she had a rare secondary leukemia. After receiving an accurate diagnosis, she was able to get the right treatment for her condition.
AI, data and automation are powerful tools in medicine. But as this technology becomes increasingly accurate and efficient at diagnosing and treating us, where do doctors and nurses fit in? What happens to the 18 million health care workers across the U.S.?
Whether it’s in your home or at an office, in 50 years you’ll probably see the doctor a lot less thanks to technology.
Today, when you need urgent care, you go to the hospital and see a doctor. But in the future, experts predict that hospitals, as we know them, will become a thing of the past. Instead, AI bots in your home and mobile units will fix you up faster than doctors and nurses. But it could get even crazier: In 50 years, we might be able to edit our own DNA to prevent disease.
And one of the most exciting parts about mobile, DIY medicine? It’ll make health care a lot cheaper. According to the Health Care Cost Institute, the average cost of an emergency room visit in the U.S. is just under $2,000. If you don’t have insurance, you might have to pay for that out of pocket. But all that may soon change.
“I could easily see a time where we have operating rooms that move around on flatbed trucks and come twice a week to a rural community to aggregate services,” says Amy Compton-Phillips, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Providence St. Joseph Health (PSJH) in Washington state. And we already know that mobile medicine can be cheaper than going to the doctor’s office. A study by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that elderly patients who received house calls over two years spent nearly $8,500 less on health care on average, compared to those who visited clinics and hospitals.
But when we talk about a future where at-home medicine is the norm, it’s important to remember that not everyone has a home, says Carladenise Edwards, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at PSJH. “For some, there will still be a need to be treated in a setting that’s safe, clean and comfortable, and that enables them to get the full plethora of services,” says Edwards, “not just to be treated, but to heal.”
Whether it’s in your home or at an office, in 50 years you’ll probably see the doctor a lot less thanks to technology. According to Dr. Bertalan Meskó, founder of the Medical Futurist Institute in Budapest, monitoring our own health is going to become virtually effortless. “I expect health sensors to be on my body, even digital tattoos on my body that I don’t have to bother using but I know are there measuring data,” Mesko says. When something goes wrong? “These technologies let us know.” A digital tattoo, as Meskó describes, would be worn on your arm and outfitted with tiny, temporary electronic sensors, constantly measuring vitals like blood pressure and hydration levels and sending a message to your phone if something seems out of whack.
While software engineers and geek squads will undeniably play a large part in our at-home care, some parts of medicine are still too complicated to rely on automation completely. At Johns Hopkins University, its Soft Tissue Autonomous Robot was able to perform open surgery on a pig completely on its own. But the robot took six times longer than a human typically would and made more mistakes.
At best, AI and machine learning will support doctors and nurses. Still, one thing is clear: Technology can help physicians become better caregivers. In 2014, a Senate hearing on patient safety found that medical errors were the third most common cause of death for people in the United States, only behind heart disease and cancer.
But what if technology could turn us into our own doctors? Josiah Zayner, founder of a consumer genetic engineering startup in Oakland, California, called The ODIN, thinks that’s where we’re headed. Zayner wants to teach people to use techniques like CRISPR, a tool for editing genomes, to prevent and treat disease on their own. “A lot of times in this world, the system lets you down,” Zayner says. “A lot of times, your only option is yourself and your loved ones.”
Editing our own DNA sounds rather intimidating, but Zayner isn’t worried. “As much as we like to talk about zombie apocalypses and eugenics, none of that stuff is really real,” he says. If anything were to go wrong, it wouldn’t affect wide swaths of the population, says Zayner, because in general, genetic modification of adults isn’t passed onto the children.
It may seem like a long legal and ethical jump from DIY stitches to DIY genetics, but just as people once had to go to the well to get water, it’s not hard to imagine a future where these on-demand at-home services will become the norm.
And will the human touch always have a place in medicine? Yes, of course. “You need someone to understand the context of your life and pull in the medical knowledge,” says Compton-Phillips. “There is something intrinsic in the human nature of healing.”