Your robot doctor overlords will see you now

Gartner: Virtual personal health assistants and other technology eliminate the physician for annual exams


Seems the days of the annual trip to your doctor’s office may be fading in favor of a virtual healthcare provider. At least if you follow the research presented by Gartner this week which predicted by 2025, 50% of the population will rely on what it called virtual personal health assistants (VPHAs) for primary care, finding them more responsive and accurate than their human counterparts. 

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"There is significant evidence that the majority of primary healthcare visits are of little value to the patient, and represent a massive drain on trained physician time. Physician demand is outpacing supply, begging the need for alternatives," said Laura Craft, research director at Gartner. "Technology has advanced to the point where computers have become superior to the human mind; they are more accurate and consistent, and they are better at processing all the determinants of health and well-being than even the best of doctors."

Gartner’s healthcare outlook comes from its thinking-outside-the-box Maverick research which is designed to spark “new, unconventional insights,” the researchers say.

Craft continued saying VPHAs will become the referee of all data and information and will be the interface for communicating with people on health, wellness advice and recommendations based on the processing of the data collected and the individual's health goals and needs. 

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"Leading indicators prove that technology has advanced in this direction, and mainstream maturity is likely within 15 years," Craft stated. "Eliminating the physician for annual exams and primary health will happen, but, we need to recognize that this is a radical departure from primary care today. New channels of medical care create the need for changes in behavior, thinking, and perhaps even law. However, many barriers that might have been perceived as obstacles are already fading."

Indeed, some barriers are falling. You can see evidence of it in what IBM is doing with its Watson supercomputer where the system has become a trusted advisor to hospitals and research centers working for people fighting cancer. The CBS news program “60 Minutes” recently devoted a large segment on Watson and the success it has had in this battle (See more here).

"Technology will not replace the primary tier of medicine for everyone. Primary care physicians will be needed to care for the chronically ill, the elderly, and special needs patients to coordinate their care and the more complex care plans their conditions call for. But for the vast majority, replacing primary and routine care with technology is within our grasp and a highly likely possibility," said Craft.

Gartner noted that a number of barriers to the virtual medical world are already going away, including:

The doctor/patient relationship: There are many indicators that show that people are adopting technology to track and manage their health and are moving past reliance on the physician for all things medical. The internet, wearables, and health and wellness apps are helping people to manage their health and are providing unprecedented access to a lot of medical information.

Legal: Medical errors will likely be reduced once human judgment is taken out of the equation. Once smart machines — powered by precision algorithms — take over, the entire notion of what constitutes medical malpractice will change.

Regulatory: These new technologies do need to be regulated and there will be diversity from country to country in what the standards are. However, the regulatory barriers for getting devices to market are no different than getting innovative drugs and therapies approved today.

Funding: Smart machines, virtual personal assistants and personal health hubs are just a part of a much bigger picture of how healthcare will be funded in the future. Globally, the shift toward population health management programs that emphasize lower costs, improved quality, decreased disparity and increased access, and a better experience for the patient incentivizes the use of technology to stay healthy and be connected to a care network.

Craft noted too: The millennial generation has a very different relationship with technology than its parents and grandparents, and is much more likely to use an app over a human interface.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.