Recently I’ve been reading a lot on autonomous driving, which got me thinking whether the same phenomenon will affect healthcare. Many vehicles today have elements of autonomous driving, but the futurists all predict that by something like 2020 there will be a plethora of driverless cars.
In large cities with traffic gridlock, this is proffered as an answer, where autonomous vehicles will be able to pick you up at your origin and drop you at your destination. Some go so far as to suggest that private ownership of vehicles will decline in favor of these shared vehicles. Uber, the car service is already testing variations of autonomous cars in some major cities.
As I contemplate this future, I began to wonder what healthcare will be like, given all the changes taking place. As healthcare providers wrestle with how to address value-based medicine and reduce costs, there will be more pressure to automate healthcare. In today’s environment where such shifts are just starting, change has resulted in physician shortages, as more physicians wrestle with changing economics. Technology has made inroads in helping, but physicians complain about an increased burden of data entry and less time to spend with patients.
Private physician groups are shrinking, as they can’t provide full services with reduced fees. An elderly family friend has been going to the same practitioner for many years, and has lately noticed changes. The nurse who used to field calls and manage patients in the waiting room is gone. The physician is affiliated with a hospital using Epic’s MyChart. The physician advises his patients to email him! A recent health issue has left the gentleman stymied, as he doesn’t have email, and he gets voicemail when trying to call the office, leaving him without physician contact and no service.
So, what might be some options in an autonomous healthcare society? Tasks once done by support staff might be more automated. For example, already reminders for a patient appointment are handled by an automated voice application. Facilities with an EMR may have set up a patient portal that allows the patient to see certain results, such as labs and radiology results. In the case of my provider, I can access both, but I can only see a summary of the radiology report.
With the advent of more advanced applications such as IBM’s Watson Health, it might be possible to be even more interactive with a patient. Could a patient interact over the phone to enable the patient to describe their symptoms and schedule a visit? Could an application call the patient and provide them with a summary of their test? Perhaps technology such as Watson could scan a report and convert the results into language that the patient could more easily understand, as well as address follow-on activities with the patient.
Similarly, could such technology assist the physician by handling more of the mundane tasks such as updating a chart? This would free up the physician to have more time to spend with the patient. The artificial intelligence capabilities of such applications might also be able to make recommendations to the physician on a course of treatment, based on information reviewed.
I don’t think autonomous healthcare will go so far as the autonomous automobile, by replacing the physician with Dr. Robot. But, I would expect to see significantly more applications to assist the physician and free them up to do what they do best – patient treatment! It’s a brave new world!