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All hail our new GP robot overlords



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 Which brings me to Jeremy Hunt’s announcement at NHS Expo that within the next ten years doctors will have been replaced by computers.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the fate of London’s black cab drivers; within a generation they’ve seen their painstakingly-accreted Knowledge superseded by Google Maps, and their monopoly on its application destroyed by Uber.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