In collaboration with the Australian Medical Students Association (ASMA), Medshop Australia recently held a competition asking for participants to submit a short piece of writing based on a choice of four topics relating to medicine and healthcare. One of these topics was the future of doctors and their relationship with technology. This was the topic that Kuhan Perumynar chose to write about. Kuhan received and honourable mention for his work and we enjoyed it so much that we wanted to share it with you. So without further ado, we will hand over to Kuhan.
The internet knows more about the human body than you can ever hope to comprehend. Deep down, everyone understands that no matter how many hours you spend huddled in front of your textbook, you will never be able to learn it all. There is information available online that is of immense benefit to doctors and patients alike, and assists individuals to educate themselves and lead healthy lives. However, in this epoch of unlimited access to information through the internet, it is inevitable that people will attempt to self-diagnose any ailment with a quick Wikipedia search or consult Dr Google instead. It has already become an issue, and with the increasing ubiquity of technology it is only going to become worse.
So what is a doctor meant to do? How can doctors help patients navigate this new interface of medical information? Firstly, doctors have to accept that their computers will always be smarter than they are. It is a confronting realisation, but its implications don’t make it any less true. However, what many fail to realise is that a doctor’s training does not simply equip them with knowledge, but also the ability to seek out further knowledge, and to know which information is reliable and which isn’t. The deluge of contradicting information on the internet means that many patients may be led astray by their own curiosity. Doctors need to be aware of this and be able to confidently discuss with their patients which sources of information are reliable, and which aren’t.
Yet technology’s breadth extends far beyond computers alone. Years of research have been dedicated to advancements we often don’t consider technology; from the materials used in dissolvable sutures, to the more obvious nanotechnology being developed for surgery. The problem is that this rapid rate of technological advancement quickly renders new innovations obsolescent. In a profession where cutting edge technology can save countless lives, how often can we afford to keep updating our technology and how do we decide which technologies to invest in and which to ignore? Fundamentally, these questions address the equitable distribution of limited resources that underpins the principle of justice in biomedical ethics, and any decision has enormous opportunity costs inherently associated with them.
This issue is further exacerbated by the fact that ultimately, the current rate of technological advancement far outstrips our ability to appreciate all the possible uses for any given innovation. It may be that by the time we realise how a technology could be used in medicine, it will have already been rendered obsolete or outdated.
Thus, I would propose that doctors have a responsibility to educate themselves about what technology is currently under development, or at least actively identify areas in need of innovation. This would provide the foundation for a more open discourse with engineers and product designers to aid the development of technology that is useful to doctors and the medical field at large.
However, this rapid rate of technological advancement necessitates that doctors constantly learn how to operate new devices and applications. This consumes time which could have been spent treating patients, and the resources spent retraining doctors in these technologies may have been of greater benefit elsewhere. Furthermore, we must question on a systemic level if improving medical technology is increasing doctors’ reliance on machines in clinical practice rather than their own intuition or experience.
From the implementation of unobtrusive technologies such as automated blood pressure monitors all the way to expensive machines with powerful capabilities such as CAT scanners (which have their own risks due to radiation), doctors increasingly depend upon technology to provide confirmation of diagnoses and treatments that were previously done manually. If these technologies should fail us in the future, will we find we have lost the technical expertise we once had? Are we becoming less effective as clinicians as we become more dependent on machines?
And for the insecure amongst us, this begs another question: will technology eventually render doctors completely obsolete? Will technology ever reach a stage that diagnosis and treatment may be performed without the need for any human input at all? The answer is dependent upon society’s acceptance of newer technology. Technology is already invaluable in nearly every facet of medicine. Who is to say this trajectory won’t continue? There are too many social and ethical considerations for fruitful discussion to occur at the present time, and for now, it remains in the realm of science-fiction rather than science.
Even so, doctors and medical professionals are integral to the fabric of modern society. Although technology already has vast capabilities, it cannot process emotion. Thus, it cannot empathise and it cannot truly comprehend an individual’s circumstances, nor provide meaningful support or comfort to a patient. It is too easy to forget that the practice of medicine is inherently human and that it is the interaction between a doctor and their patient that determines the outcome of a treatment and the patient’s overall health. Without understanding this, all the technology in the world won’t bring about any meaningful change to a patient’s life.
Like it or not, doctors are going to have to accept that technology is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of medicine and modern life in general. Here, doctors must rely on their intellect and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The medical profession will evolve; it has always needed to. Whether it has been due to changing social mores or improving technology, being a doctor has always demanded the ability to adapt.
Yet in spite of changes in technology, the fundamental role of the doctor will never change, for it is a simple role; to be human, to empathise and to do all in our power to put the patient’s needs first. So long as we don’t lose sight of these principles, and remain open to the possibilities afforded by new technologies, I cannot help but be optimistic about the future of medicine.