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At the heart of general practice since 1960

All hail our new GP robot overlords

Dr Pete Deveson

Dr Pete Deveson BLOG duo_3x2

Dr Pete Deveson BLOG duo_3x2

Thanks goodness the silly season is over, and we can look forward instead to more sensible news as our leaders attend conferences to pontificate on the future of healthcare. Which brings me to Jeremy Hunt’s announcement at NHS Expo that within the next ten years doctors will have been replaced by computers. I know what you’re thinking: when those 5,000 extra GPs he reckons he’s recruiting hear about this they’re gonna be well miffed.

At the same event, Sir Bruce Keogh said we’ll have computer-generated radiology reports by 2021, and this, at least, is not hard to believe. I mean, my IT skills make Derek Zoolander look like Dennis Nedry but even I could write that programme:

10 PRINT “APPEARANCES ARE CONSISTENT WITH” SCARYDIAGNOSIS$ “BUT” MOREEXPENSIVETEST$ “IS REQUIRED TO CLARIFY THESE FINDINGS”

20 ON NO ACCOUNT TAKE ANY STEPS TO ARRANGE MOREEXPENSIVETEST$ EVEN THOUGH YOU’VE JUST RECOMMENDED IT AND IT’S GOING TO BE DONE IN THE ROOM NEXT DOOR

30 GOTO 10

Perhaps I’m being unkind to the osteomalacic scanner guardians in thinking that GPs might prove to be a teensy bit harder to replace. Will a computer be able to fathom how a pain could be simultaneously both rated as eleven out of ten in severity yet also prove insufficient motivation for its sufferer to break a lifetime habit of tablet eschewal? Can a robot calculate the duration of ‘quite a while’ without any additional reference to recognised units of time passage? Will human ingenuity produce a machine capable of interpreting every possible mispronunciation of the word ibuprofen?

Can a robot calculate the duration of ‘quite a while’?

In all seriousness, the likely answer to these questions is yes. Consider the fate of London’s black cab drivers; within a generation they’ve seen their painstakingly-accreted Knowledge superseded by Google Maps, and their monopoly on its application destroyed by Uber. There is nothing unique or special about the noble art of Hippocrates that renders us immune from progress. It might not be in 2028, but at some point we’ll end up as glorified reboot technicians, standing idly by as our former patients queue up to ask “Alexa, sign my parachute form” or “Siri, why are my teeth itchy?”

There is, thankfully, a positive side to all this. Any computer that can function as a GP will more than capable of standing in as Health Secretary. In fact, I’ve got an old ZX Spectrum knocking about in my shed that can’t do a worse job than the current incumbent. Now - how about a reshuffle?

Dr Pete Deveson is a GP in Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @PeteDeveson

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Readers' comments (14)

  • Mithu Rahman

    We already are being governed by robots - have you seen any of Teresa May's press conferences? Once we've replaced those idiots with computers who can process actual verifiable data (and who don't vote themselves a 10% annual pay increase) - then we can consider using them for jobs that are actually important

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  • Brilliant! You seriously should think about writing a regular blog or something. Maybe the future will bring the realisation of one of those "digital" rectal examination tools that my BPH patient had read up on. That turned into a disappointing consult.

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  • More worrying is being replaced by nurses following algorithms with a cheery smile and a ton of empathy - that will be in the 5 years

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  • Actually spat coffee out at "Siri, my teeth are itchy". On form Deveson, on form.

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  • I still think it is debatable as to whether bots programmed with sophisticated AI will ever be able to understand the complexities of a patient consultation. Giving patients specific advice regarding what to do and what medication to take or stop is one thing, but compassion and empathy maybe more difficult to develop. Then I could be wrong. Certainly Elon Musk believes that most people will be out of a job in the future due to AI. Mind you if there is no alternative for patients other than AI or conversely having to pay for personalised human consultations, patients may get used to AI. After all most people now book their airline tickets and hotels online without speaking to anybody. I know that's not the same as healthcare delivery, but....

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  • Any news on the sex robots?

    Asking for a friend by the way.

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  • Cobblers

    Ask for my 'friend' too and see if they can do the washing as well.

    Then I could get rid of the wife.

    (/onlykiddingdear)

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  • This will clearly never happen as it will risk putting the GMC and appraisal brigade out of work... And of course who will carry the blame when there is an error..

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  • Named responsible robot ... lol

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  • AI will be the norm. Babylon are pushing hard to become first port of call for transactional healthcare users for a modest £5/month Might be courting GPs and doctors to start with but as AI systems learn the sophistication and nuances of interactions from experience built up in the next 5-10 years expect this to be ANPs medical technicians its inevitable. Watch Year Million on Nat Geo I think, for a glimpse of the ''disruption'' silicon valley and AI that we might expect to see in the future.

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