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Will automation take over healthcare jobs? Industry experts share their opinion

By Charlotte Edwards

From AI-powered diagnosis to robotic surgery systems, the march of automation is undeniable in the medical industry. But how far will it go, and could technology ever replace the human element altogether? Here, medical industry experts tell us to what extent they think automated technology could replace human professionals in healthcare in the future

Could automation replace human professionals? Credit: Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.

It’s a question of complementing, not replacing

At Beyond Limits, we believe the role of AI is to complement, not replace, people by delivering actionable intelligence to human experts. Like many technology optimists, we believe AI could create a world where human abilities are amplified as machines help mankind process, analyse, and evaluate the abundance of data that creates today’s world, allowing humans to spend more time engaged in high-level thinking, creativity, and decision-making.

One serious problem is that of expectation of what AI can really do. At the end of the day, an AI system is educated and trained to solve a particular problem and that is pretty much its entire universe. These systems are not humans, who can freely interact with their environment. They are machines, not people. The question is no longer whether AI will fundamentally change the workplace. It’s happening. The true question is how companies can successfully use AI in ways that enables, not replaces, the human workforce, helping to make humans faster, more efficient and more productive.

AJ Abdallat, CEO, Beyond Limits

You can’t replace the human touch in healthcare

In order to break through, new medical technologies must fit into a more patient-centered model of healthcare. They must empower patients – at its best, technology can do that. But in order to have positive patient experiences, they must also feel safe and supported, and that’s what human caregivers will always do best.

New technologies will provide more agency to patients and free up the bandwidth of clinicians and practitioners, so they can provide more personal, meaningful care.

Emerson Dameron, content marketing manager, Neoteryx

Empathy can’t be automated

I do not believe AI and tech will have the ability to replace humans any time soon and perhaps never. I see AI best used as an adjunct or helper to medical professionals and not a replacement. There are things an artificial intelligence or robot just can’t do and understanding the nuances of human interactions is one of them.

Patientcare is not all science. It is art and empathy and emotions as well. Treating patients should not be left to machines since they have no emotions, make decisions based on their own logic, are not creative and can make mistakes. Also it can never truly understand “first do no harm”. We tend to put too much faith in smart technology, either because we were exposed to it in Star Wars or have grown up using it or believe all the hype. The goal of AI and robots should always be working with humans and not replacing them.

Dr Tim Lynch, CEO, Psychsoftpc

Tech will help free up doctors’ time

At Enola Labs Software we do not believe technology will ever fully replace humans in healthcare. However, technology will absolutely be utilised to take care of patients with lesser healthcare needs and allow human doctors to spend more time with patients that need the attention. For example, we have seen health tech devices that can “check in” with patients, increasing medication compliance and compliance to post op care plans. This not only gives doctors more time with patients in need of direct care, but also increases outcomes for patients.

Alexandra Bohigian, marketing coordinator, Enola Labs Software

Replacing humans would be detrimental

Technology can do a lot in assisting with medical care. However, I believe there is something to be said for individual human contact and attention. To completely replace healthcare professionals with machines would be detrimental, in my opinion. Patients would lose the emotional benefit of care and concern from another human being. Also, there are limitations in what a machine can do. Although technology is wonderful and can do so much, it is not the same as a human being.

Sister Christina M. Neumann, St. Anne’s Guest Home

Automation is already essential for the delivery of quality healthcare

In healthcare, automation is already having a major impact and further digital transformation is all but a certainty. When you look at some examples of AI currently in use, it’s evident that medical professionals are already relying heavily on automation for the delivery of quality healthcare. Smart beds automatically monitor health statistics that are then sent to nurse stations. Robotic carts use their own sensors and WiFi to deliver meals, surgical equipment and supplies to the hospital floor. Robotics assist surgeons in the operating room and wearable devices for those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, are linked to care centres for communication and assistance should the need arise.

The digitisation of healthcare doesn’t mean that medical professionals will become redundant. Human professionals and AI actually work in synergy to deliver quality service to patients – safely, swiftly and securely. Healthcare specialists have certainly come to rely on AI in their profession and processes have certainly become streamlined as a result, but these technologies also require a proper thought process behind ensuring the quality and delivery of these services. As they are fast becoming essential to quality patient care, the need for constant monitoring of these automated services and their environment mustn’t be overlooked and is why automation won’t replace human professionals in healthcare.

Eileen Haggerty, senior director enterprise business operations, Netscout

Automation can save time and costs

It seems highly likely that the amount of automation in health services is set to increase overall. Healthcare is under considerable pressure to deliver more and better care at a lower cost, and greater automation provides a path to addressing these issues. However, it is unlikely that this automation will supplant significant numbers of skilled professionals, who are, after all, in short supply. Instead, it will allow organisations to make better use of available resources by reducing repetitive labour and freeing up highly-skilled staff for more valuable tasks.

An example of how automation can free up staff is patient care devices such as connected pill boxes. An IoT Connected pillbox knows when it has been opened, helping to identify whether or not the patient has taken their medication. If the box has not been opened, automated reminders can be sent via phone or text – if there is still no response then it can be escalated, so that patients are only called by a clinician or visited at home when an issue arises. As well as reducing noncompliance – a problem that costs the NHS over £500m a year – and helping to identify vulnerable individuals, this kind of monitoring frees up clinical staff to devote more time to frontline care.

Ashish Koul, president, Acqueon

Jobs will be significantly impacted

Population aging and increasing demand is putting an ever-increasing pressure on most countries’ healthcare systems by demanding more and more of the medical staff. From that perspective, the recent arrival of automation brings about some very interesting features: In diagnostics, it is the promise of screening a larger number of patients earlier on. In surgery, it is the promise of simplifying complex operations, and enlarging the patient pool. In pharmaceuticals, it is the promise of designing more efficient treatments. In other words, it is the promise of increasing the efficiency and productivity of healthcare overall.

There is no doubt that jobs will be significantly impacted: GPs will become consultants, nurses will become data analysts and surgeons will become pilots. Yet, healthcare is not just a matter of data. The human factor is, and will always remain, capital. Clinical data shows, for example, that patient experience is strongly correlated to clinical outcome and can lead to complication improvements by up to 50%. Medical decisions are not just rational. I believe automation is a huge opportunity that will definitely disrupt healthcare as we know it. But, in my opinion, we will always need a medical staff to pilot the treatments and interface with the patients.

Silvere Lucquin, CEO, Aditlys

All jobs will be disrupted, but admin level jobs will be the first to go

Technology is mainly going to replace low level health workers and health workers who don’t have direct contact with patients, or who do the exact same task over and over.  This includes lab workers, billers and coders, and so on.

Almost every country in the world has a health worker shortage and global aging will exacerbate this problem. As a result, technology won’t put many people out of a job. Instead it will make their jobs more pleasant (health can be a very high stress occupation and physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession) and improve the quality of care. Technology will enable many patients to receive a tentative diagnosis and the health worker will confirm this diagnosis. Advanced practice nurses will replace many physicians and the physicians will start to practice “at the top of their license” and provide higher levels of care. Nursing care will also be extremely hard to replace because part of their role is technical and part is compassion/emotion-based. When a loved one is dying or near death, you want a compassion person to be by your side and get you through it.

This being said, almost all health professions and jobs will be disrupted.  For example, with tele-radiology and artificial intelligence reading of images, we won’t need as many radiologists per population, but no radiologist will be unemployed because they will shift into interventional radiology.

Kate Tulenko, physician, health workforce expert & CEO of Corvus Health

Automating admin will improve efficiency

Before I get into business process automation, it is crucial to understand that successful organisations know they need real people behind their technologies. This is especially true in the healthcare industry where the human touch cannot be substituted. That being said, an increase in automation tools allows healthcare professionals to be more efficient as well as tackle more complex jobs.

There are people in the tech department of every major medical company whose sole responsibility is to report any changes in system application performance. While the task is necessary, it causes these people to spend the majority of their day staring at a computer screen. These types of tasks can be fully automated, saving companies millions of dollars. Rather than replacing their employees altogether, the most successful companies invest these savings into employee career development so their employees gain skills that will increase their impact in the medical field.

Dylan Max, head of growth, Foglogic

Ai has great potential in audiometry

Andrew Ng, a renowned computer scientist and former CSO at Baidu, once told me that tasks a typical person can do with no more than one second of thought may be automated with artificial intelligence now or in the near future. This suggests that in hearing healthcare, some tasks may be ripe for automation.

In fact there have already been attempts to automate routine audiometry. In the case of air-conduction hearing aids, we have already transitioned from manual program changes to adaptive signal processing that detects and automatically adapts to the dynamic listening environment. Advances like these have not replaced human professionals, however. In fact some of them have helped hearing healthcare professionals be even more successful.

Counseling is one crucial aspect of hearing healthcare that seems beyond the near-term reach of automation. While virtual personal assistants may leverage language models and acoustic models to function in simple use-cases, and emotion detection may mature to reliably recognise extremes, the empathetic counseling provided by hearing healthcare professionals ensures their job security. Complex decision-making based on subtle cues among a highly variable spectrum of patients will keep hearing healthcare professionals in business for years to come.

Dr Aaron Jones, director in-clinic success, Unitron