Will technology eventually replace human touch in healthcare?
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Will technology eventually replace human touch in healthcare?

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Technology awareness has become essential for the doctor of today. Can gadgets, telemedicine and an IoT of healthcare automate treatment management? Prakash Sathyapalan, Chief Technology Officer & Co-Founder, PurpleHealth.com, analysis in this futuristic article on how technology is all set to change the face of healthcare delivery.

As an engineer who has spent his career in technology, from Mumbai to Silicon Valley and back to India, I have always believed in the ability of technology to improve the lives of people over time. The changes to various industries may be gradual or quick, minimal or disruptive, like that of the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile, or from sending letters to email; but there is no avoiding technological progress.

As the CTO of a healthcare start-up, Purple Health, I believe that the healthcare industry will be transformed by technological advancements and that everyone will be better off for it. Having said that, I do not believe that technology will replace human touch in healthcare.

Countless books and science fiction movies have examples where an artificial intelligent robot uses an almost magical tool that diagnoses and repairs disease and injury, without any sort of invasive surgery, and all in a matter of moments.

This future where you don’t need humans, much less a doctor, is considered the ultimate futuristic hope for health diagnosis and treatment. The reality of healthcare in the real world may never likely be that advanced as in fiction but that hasn’t stopped Qualcomm, the semiconductor telecom company, from offering a $10 million prize for someone who can create a wireless handheld device that can diagnose diseases, based on the fictional Star Trek Tricorder, from the movies and TV show.

In India, it is estimated that there is a shortage of around 600,000 doctors, which impacts rural areas and those without resources. There are similar shortages across various other healthcare platforms. This means that without advancements in technology, to help deliver healthcare at scale, hundreds of millions of people will not be able to access healthcare in a timely, affordable manner. These people need and deserve quality healthcare too.

We already have Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices like blood monitors, stethoscopes and other tools that are a harbinger of nearly all medical devices becoming networked and having the ability to share data. This means that a doctor in Mumbai can review in real time, heart-rate, blood data and other vital signs in real time for a rural patient in Uttar Pradesh, and give medical advice.

Telehealth tools will help with face-to-face video chats so that patients can better communicate with healthcare providers, even if they are in a different city, state, or country. Technology won’t solve all these issues, but technology is good at scaling solutions where one can be found.

There won’t be one size fits all solutions, but there will be some solutions that work for certain cases, and as we progress, more and more breakthroughs will occur. For example, Big Data, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are being trained to identify patterns and produce more accurate predictions.

The same type of AI image recognition that Google is using to identify images is getting to the point where cancers, like breast cancer, can automatically be identified from medical imaging. Does this mean that people won’t need to speak to doctors? No, it just means that these types of tools can assist doctors to quickly and accurately identify problems and help treat diseases faster and at an earlier stage for more people.

It means that a rural patient without access to a nearby radiologist can upload their scans and that software can flag potential issues in the images, as well as, help medical professionals ignore non-issues so that they don’t get overwhelmed and can focus on the cases where people need immediate help.

Technology will help doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists, nurses and other healthcare professionals and providers in doing their job, and in doing their job better. Undoubtedly technology will find ways to improve, make more efficient, or even remove certain common jobs in healthcare, but I am equally certain that this will lead to healthcare professionals to do better work independently. There will always be humans in healthcare.

Recall that the original Star Trek series still had Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy, who had to direct and deploy the technology. The later series, Star Trek: The Next Generation had an AI hologram doctor. It should be noted, however, that this ‘Doctor’ looked, spoke and worked like a human being. It seems that even in the most fantastical future, the human touch is needed.

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