5 reasons why Artificial Intelligence won’t replace physicians

There is a lot of concern and fear surrounding Artificial Intelligence taking over jobs in medicine. Will physicians become obsolete? Will AI replace most medical professionals? We look into this throughout this article and set the record straight: here are the 5 main reasons why artificial intelligence won’t take the place of physicians.

The medical community should take no notice of the fearmongering around A.I.

While we await the industrial revolution, digitization and automation are drastically changing the job market. Lots of professionals dear that AI, robots, and automation will take their jobs without any alternative. These very same worries emerge in medicine when AI is talked about. Especially in the radiology field, with robots surpassing the skills of surgeons.

One of the most renowned speakers in tech, Kai-Fu Lee, who is the founder of Sinovation Ventures, was noted to say that AI will be much larger than any other tech revolution, and robots are likely to replace around 50% of all jobs within the next decade. Another prominent voice, Vinod Khosla said that machines will substitute around 80% of doctors in medicine in the future and that healthcare will be run by entrepreneurs and not medical experts. Prof Geoffrey Hinton said in 2016 that it’s “quite obvious that we should stop training radiologists.” This all comes about as the AI algorithms are showing themselves to be better than humans. But is all of this true?

Not in the slightest, they are all completely wrong. Perhaps there are indeed many signs suggesting that AI will completely take over the world of healthcare, and yes, there are many technologies that are transforming the industry. However, fear-mongering and staring that medical professionals will disappear is simply irresponsible. For instance, it could very well scare off medical students from beginning a career in radiology. Curtis Langlotz, stated in a presentation recently, that one of his students sent him an email suggesting that he was thinking about going into the field of radiology, but he wasn’t sure whether it’s a viable profession any longer.

Healthcare will always need humans in the future

There is a suggestion that investors like Vinod Khosla don’t really understand the medical sector, and therefore his suggestion isn’t really based on proper knowledge. A report by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne from the University of Oxford suggested that medical records, medical transcriptionists, and health information technicians, and medical secretaries are the most likely jobs to be computerized in the future. It suggested that physicians had around a 0.42% chance of their profession becoming automated.

That isn’t to suggest, however, that AI will appear in healthcare in the next 10-15 years. For instance, many believe that in 10 years’ time, AI will be routinely used in NHS practices. And others suggest that within three years, we could see a lot of machine learning algorithms being used in clinical pilot testing and being approved by the US.

Furthermore, AI will totally change the meaning of what it means to become a doctor. Of course, some tasks will change, others will go away entirely. But, there will never ever be a scenario where automation via a robot or an algorithm will replace a doctor. Here are the reasons why.

1) Robots cannot replace empathy

The world of technology has a vast array of excellent solutions, but it would be hard for any of them to embody empathy. Why? That’s because empathy is all about building trust, listening intently to the other person, paying attention to their feelings and needs, and being compassionate and responsive in a manner that the other person feels understood.

At the moment, no one would trust a robot of an AI algorithm with a life-threatening decision or even a decision whether to take a form of medicine or not. For example, the NHS undertook an experiment to ease the burden on their health lines by using chatbots. Those taking part in the trial suggested that they would use the system to get an appointment with the doctor quicker instead of using the chatbot’s recommendations. This could all change in the future, however, as patients take better care of their health and have more responsibility in their own care, but still, we simply cannot imagine a healthcare system without empathy. Doctors will always be needed to hold our hands and tell us about a life-altering diagnosis, and we will need them to guide us through therapy and provide support. No algorithm or robot could ever replace that. Period.

2) Physicians have changing working methods

One of the episodes in House M.D., showed a team trying to figure out how a small boy might have been poisoned. They thought about many options, food, drugs, pesticide poisoning, etc. And for each possible diagnosis, they came up with a different treatment choice. Every option made the patient feel worse, until they finally figured out, by accident, that the child had phosmet, a kind of insecticide from the jeans he was wearing that he purchased from a street vendor. The child hadn’t washed the clothes before wearing them, and his skin absorbed the poison.

There is no possible algorithm that could have made the diagnosis. Even though data, measurements, and analytics are a huge part of a doctor’s job, they will become even more so in the future, but finding a diagnosis and setting up a treatment plan are not linear processes. A doctor’s job requires creativity and problem-solving abilities, something that robots and algorithms will never have.

There are many kinds of patients, each with different lifestyles. And, diseases have the same feature. Therefore, no two cases are the same, each one is entirely different and requires human physicians. Before the evolution of digital solutions and complex technology, physicians used basic medical devices to make healthcare decisions. This process won’t change in the future, there will just be more complex technology involved.

3) Complex digital technology requires competent professionals

With a lot more advanced digital health solutions available, there will be a need for competent, qualified medical professionals, whether it’s about robotics or AI or not. For example, let’s consider the surgical robot, the da Vinci Surgical System. The robot has a magnified 3D high-definition vision system and tiny instruments that can rotate and bend much further than any human hand. But, surgeons will need to learn how to operate it, and to master, this will take practice.

Similarly, there is IBM Watson. A program for oncologists that is very unique. It provides clinicians with evidence-based treatment choices. Regardless of this though, only doctors and their patients will choose the treatment, and only physicians can assess whether the algorithm’s suggestion was useful or not. There is no algorithm or robot that will be able to deal with such complex, multi-layered challenges. They may provide the data, but the interpretation of such will always remain with humans.

4) There will always be tasks algorithms and robots can never complete

Doctors, nurses, and lots of other medical staff members have lots of monotonous, cumbersome, and repetitive tasks that they undertake each day. In the US, a study suggested that the average doctor has to spend 8.7 hours each week on admin tasks. Psychiatrists spend the largest proportion of their day on paperwork (20.3%), followed by internists (17.3%), and then family GPs (17.3%). All of these kinds of procedures and tasks could be and should be, automated.

But, there will always be duties and responsibilities that technology cannot do. Although IBM Watson can work through millions of pages of a document in seconds, it won’t ever be able to perform the Heimlich maneuver. So there will always remain tasks that humans can do much quicker, much more reliably, and much cheaper than technology can.

5) It has never been about tech vs. human

The view that many have, and the constant enemy building image needs to stop once and for all. It’s never been a case of technology vs. humans. There is no them versus us, after all, technology is there to help people. We are all on the same team. Whether it’s AI, AR or VR, or robots, we must all accept that technology plays a huge part in the way our healthcare works, and we must start utilizing their powers. Imagine what could be capable in healthcare when we have the problem-solving skills and creativity combined with the computing power and cognitive resources of technology.

The ultimate response is the collaboration between humans and technology. A recent study that used deep learning to identify metastatic breast cancer showed something similar. When the findings of the deep learning system were combined with the pathologist’s diagnoses, the tumor localization score, and the image classification, significantly increased. Furthermore, the error rate for hums was reduced by 85%. When cooperating, the outcome of AI and humans can be the most potent.

Many believe that technology will help medical professionals to become more efficient, less prone to error and mistakes, and more seamless. Perhaps in the future, we could have an occurring answer to this fear of AI taking over healthcare and look at it in a more positive light.


Humanitas is a highly specialized Hospital, Research and Teaching Center. Built around centers for the prevention and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular, neurological and orthopedic disease – together with an Ophthalmic Center and a Fertility Center – Humanitas also operates a highly specialised Emergency Department.