Human Doctors Still Better Than Computers

No offense to humans, but I'm totally convinced that machines that combine artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities will supersede all previously held standards of medical care. Like Larry Niven's Autodoc, to take one example:

"Nowadays surgery was normally done by autodocs..."

For awhile, Jim Davis was very busy. Everyone, including himself, had a throbbing blinding headache. To each patient, Dr. Davis handed a tiny pink pill from the dispenser slot of the huge autodoc which covered the back wall of the infirmary...

Although most science fiction fans associate the autodoc with his 1970 novel Ringworld, the first appearance is in The Warriors, a 1966 story by Niven.

But now, we have reassurance for human doctors - you're not obsolete yet. In a study done at Harvard Medical School, it appears that Docs much bettter than internet or app-based symptoms checkers.

The findings, published Oct. 10 in JAMA Internal Medicine, show that physicians' performance is vastly superior and that doctors make a correct diagnosis more than twice as often as 23 commonly used symptom-checker apps. The analysis is believed to provide the first direct comparison between human-made and computer-based diagnoses.

Diagnostic errors stem from failure to recognize a disease or to do so in a timely manner. Physicians make such errors roughly 10 to 15 percent of the time, researchers say.

Over the last two decades, computer-based checklists and other fail-safe digital apps have been increasingly used to reduce medication errors or streamline infection-prevention protocols. Lately, experts have wondered whether computers might also help improve clinical diagnoses and reduce diagnostic errors. Each year, hundreds of millions of people use Internet programs or apps to check their symptoms or to self-diagnose. Yet how these computerized symptom-checkers fare against physicians has not been well studied.

In the study, 234 internal medicine physicians were asked to evaluate 45 clinical cases, involving both common and uncommon conditions with varying degrees of severity. For each scenario, physicians had to identify the most likely diagnosis along with two additional possible diagnoses. Each clinical vignette was solved by at least 20 physicians.

The physicians outperformed the symptom-checker apps, listing the correct diagnosis first 72 percent of the time, compared with 34 percent of the time for the digital platforms. Eighty-four percent of clinicians listed the correct diagnosis in the top three possibilities, compared with 51 percent for the digital symptom-checkers.

I think that the science-fictional idea of the superior machine intelligence will ultimately triumph. Science fiction movie fans may be thinking of The Doctor, the Emergency Medical Hologram from Star Trek Voyager. The EMH is a computer program that treats patients when medical help is otherwise unavailable.


(Star Trek Voyager Emergency Medical Hologram)

It's a bit more limited, but the electronic body analyzer from Michael Crichton's 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain does a pretty good job with a physical exam.

And don't forget about the robot surgeon from Isaac Asimov's 1976 novel The Bicentennial Man.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/6/2016)

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