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Reforming Delivery
Will Technology Put Doctors on Life Support?

In our time of automation no job is safe—including doctors. In The Week Pascal Emmanuel Gobry (who has written on health care for us before) argues that technology will make doctors obsolete, but create more demand for nurses:

To understand why, the first thing you need to understand is that multiple studies have shown that software is better able to diagnose illnesses, with fewer misdiagnoses […]

Then you need to look at companies like Theranos, which allow you to get a blood test cheaply and easily at Walgreens, and get more information about your health than you’d get in a typical doctor’s visit.

Then look at a company like Sherpaa, whose mobile app provides you diagnoses, helps you get your prescriptions filled, refers you to specialists, and so on. Right now, Sherpaa works with doctors. But there’s no reason to think it couldn’t eventually work with software (and in the meantime, work with cheaper Indian doctors rather than morbidly expensive American doctors).

Gobry goes on to argue these developments won’t destroy the necessity of trained health care providers. Rather, he predicts a nursing boom as these technologies empower nurses to do a lot more of the work that doctors currently do, and for cheaper. Gobry sees little room for doctors in this world. Here he perhaps overstates his case: there will still be room for doctors to do some of the more complex and higher-order care (exactly the kind of medicine many of them became doctors to practice in the first place). And some of the things experts say about the ability of “big data” to take over medicine are overblown.

But he is right that much basic primary care likely will shift away from doctors as providers with lower levels of training can use new technologies to care as effectively for patients as doctors can, and ultimately this will be hugely to the benefit of Americans currently poorly served by the U.S. health care system.

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  • Thom Burnett

    Do you seriously think that doctors will allow their jobs to be automated?
    Look what’s happened to cheap easy genetic screening.

    Doctors (thru AMA and such) will lobby for laws banning automated, amateur diagnosis on the grounds that users might be wrong and we can’t be too careful. I expect they’ll get those laws. The apps may still exist but only a doctor can use them. The rest of us aren’t smart enough.

    • Loader2000

      Sure, doctors will hold out for a while, but like every other industry with automation, they will not hold out forever, especially when people in the US start traveling abroad to get cheaper medical care (its already cheaper for my Dad to fly to Utah to get dental work done -which he does- than to simply get it done in in San Jose CA where he lives). In this case the automation has a bright side, more jobs (and probably slightly higher pay) for nurses.

      • Boritz

        (and probably slightly higher pay) for nurses.

        They will need it to cover the more-like-doctor malpractice insurance they will have to obtain when they expose themselves to the size and scope of litigation in this new nurses’ arena.

    • Corlyss

      “Do you seriously think that doctors will allow their jobs to be automated?”
      Nobody thought people could be punished for refraining from economic activity either, until the terrified SCOTUS of 1930s declared that such punishment was constitutional. When the legislature is in session, no man’s life, liberty, or property are safe. That’s not just a clever saying.

  • Andrew Allison

    Perhaps, given the reports of doctor shortages, the number of them refusing Medicaid and Medicare patients due to low reimbursement or planning on leaving the profession, rather than putting doctors on life support technology will take up the slack.

  • Suzyqpie

    The plane can fly on auto-pilot. Until something unexpected happens.

  • Corlyss

    “Doctors aren’t going away”

    Probably not. But they will become salaried employees of the state the same way grads of military academies are: term of indentured servitude, probably 10 or so years, before they will be allowed to make any money, and even then it won’t be much.

  • FriendlyGoat

    The more power we give to the various levels of nursing, the better health care we will have. Most of the good nurses have known this for decades.

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