Like pretty much all men, I hate going to the doctor. The only time in recent memory that I’ve made an exception to my medical professional-avoidance policy is when I got poison ivy on my penis (don’t ask) and I went to urgent care immediately. Outside of that, I will do everything I can to avoid making that appointment. That’s why, when I saw a recent report about some chatbots becoming advanced enough to diagnose people more effectively than a doctor (specifically, those created by health tech company Babylon), I was super happy to hear the news. Sure, they aren’t going to be able to rub calamine lotion on my groin, but that’s a trade off I’m willing to bear.
Naturally, the suggestion that a highly trained doctor can be replaced by a piece of software has some doctors riled up. And so, when the U.K.-based Babylon announced that their chatbot scored higher on the Royal College of General Practitioners exam than the average doctor’s score, many came to the defense of general practitioners, insisting that, in the real world, they could never be replaced by any kind of automation.
This isn’t just knee-jerk techno-fear, either: Since a chatbot would likely be working only with your description of your symptoms, it’s likely it would be missing key information. “Without it being able to perform any tests like your blood pressure, blood sugar, thyroid hormones, etc., any technology where you simply tell it your symptoms is going to have severe limitations,” says Donald K. Milton, a professor of environmental and occupational Health at the University of Maryland. And while Milton says that he’s “old-school enough to know that listening to patients is important,” without that physiological data, you can only know so much about what’s going on with someone.
But Babylon insists its aim is to work with doctors, rather than replace them, so that a patient would ideally follow up a chatbot diagnosis with a trip to the doctor (getting a second opinion on their first visit, so to speak). According to Seth Louey, founder of chatbot technology company Botlist, it won’t be until chatbots are combined with AI tech that they’ll really have the potential to revolutionize how we see health overall.
Louey says that chatbots as we currently know them are somewhat limited tech, intended simply to respond in a communicative way to human interactions. Every answer you could potentially get from one has been pre-programmed and limited by what’s been put in the back end. “The real potential is in artificial intelligence or machine learning,” says Louey, explaining that the kind of revolutionary tech that could truly change medicine would take the form of something that could learn on its own — the humble chatbot would simply be the front-end interactive portion of that.
Both Milton and Louey agree that the best use of this technology lies not in simply describing your symptoms to Alexa in between your music requests, but in matching it with wearable tech. “The connection of wearable technologies to monitoring will be the first and potentially the biggest asset in the near future,” says Milton. So when smartwatches become smart enough to track your health on a greater scale, you can potentially see real change coming.
Louey adds that including your medical history in there will help, too, so the technology has some historical context for the data from your watch and your symptoms. (Also, if that data can be integrated into your electronic medical record, it would get rid of the need to constantly fill out the same forms over and over again that rely primarily on your ability to remember your own medical history, even when you’re writhing in pain from swollen, poison-ivy ravaged junk, just sayin’).
All in all, the most likely use of all this tech in the near future is as a form of triage, assisting doctors in diagnosing more quickly and freeing up hospital beds for the people who really need them. As for whether the current generation of chatbots provide me with a valid excuse for not seeing the doctor in person, Milton believes it’s unlikely. “Some people use any excuse to visit the doctor, whereas others avoid it come hell or high water. A technology like this might, at most, amplify that dynamic,” he says, adding that people have already been using Google and WebMD for this exact purpose for years.
So suck it up and make that appointment — your doctor’s probably not excited to see you either, champ, but they still do it.