The digital doctor has long been held up as the holy grail of medicine, a dream of science fiction writers everywhere over the last half-century. In this vision of the future all a person needs to do is gently lie down on a glistening white bed and, after a brief laser scan, they’re given an instant diagnosis – normally some sort of horrific alien virus.
However, with the rise of artificial intelligence and the increasing prevalence of a digital life, many believe that a true digital doctor could aid or even displace real ones within the next century. Is there any truth to these predictions or are they simply a premature flight of fancy? Let’s take a look at the facts.
We’ll start with the good news: symptom checkers on the web get things right more often than they do wrong. Not by much though, and with a few caveats. Firstly the average web doctor will give you the correct diagnosis (within the top 3 results) 51% of the time, lower if your condition isn’t a particularly common one. That also means you could flip a coin and have roughly the same luck in deciding on whether to worry or not – a chance that, unsurprisingly, most doctors don’t recommend you taking.
Among those symptom checkers that gave triage advice (about whether a condition requires medical attention) the number of correct results was slightly higher, with the internet providing correct advice 57% of the time. Once again, this leaves a rather substantial 43% chance that you won’t send up seeing a doctor when you really should. Needless to say, these figures are hardly reassuring.
Unlike Dr. Google, real doctors have the ability to ask contextual questions. These are more focussed questions that may not apply to everyone. For example, if you say that you’re a worker in a plastics factory, it instantly becomes easier to draw a link between shortness of breath and the small particles you may have breathed in while at work. Meanwhile Google, knowing none of this information, could diagnose that chest pain as anything from a cold to heart attack.
Of course doctors are not perfect either, but at least they know what they don’t know (you know?). If they need a second opinion or a referral to a specialist they’ll be able to arrange it, until the correct diagnosis is reached. Although exact figures vary depending on the kind of condition, it’s thought that there’s an 83% to 93% chance of getting the correct diagnosis first time round with a real doctor, depending on which study you choose to believe.
It’s important to note that even the smartest computers are unable to think in the same way humans do. While the former are great for logical problems such as calculating a billion divided by seventy eight million (12.8205128205 by the way), they wouldn’t even beat a five year old if you asked it to draw an elephant. This is vital when it comes to medicine because people, as a whole, don’t tend to be logical. Instead they have different perceptions of pain, different mental states and different physical makeups. Kids will just say “everything hurts” – unable to vocalise exactly what they mean, while rugby players are often found in A&E stoically stating that “nothing does”… despite their kneecaps clearly facing the wrong way.
With this in mind, there’s not much chance that computers will be displacing the intuition of real doctors anytime soon. However, virtual assistance could be a great help in aiding doctors, providing an extra pair of (metaphorical) eyes when it comes to keeping tabs on things such as blood pressure and other factors that use cold hard data as a base to inform decisions.
Even if a digital doctor somehow gained the ability to become equally as good as a real one, it’s likely that it still wouldn’t replace humans. At the heart of the matter is, quite simply, heart. No matter how convincing a computer can be, it can never replicate the empathy, trust and understanding of a fellow human being in a time of need. It’s the hand on the back of the shoulder and a the knowledge that they’ll ask how the family are doing the next time you see them. It’s what makes a doctor more than a job title.
Every now and again it can be hard to get hold of a human, maybe the GP’s are booked up or your lifestyle simply doesn’t afford the time. When it comes to the grey area between common stay-at-home illnesses and medical emergencies, it can often be too tempting to ignore symptoms until they become worse. In these cases chatbots and symptom checkers often become the last option. Until now.
Fortunately you can now download the Qured app to get a real, very much human, doctor to come visit you at home – all within two hours. Alternatively, if you don’t want the computers to feel left out, you can use the online booking form below, because at the end of the day, it’s better when everyone works together. Awww.