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Tuesday, September 4th 2012

Automating Healthcare

In 1982 Vinod Kholsa was one of the four founding fathers of Sun Microsystems. Since he’s been a major player in the Silicon Valley venture capital community. So, there was some noise made when a man of that stature, at the Health Innovation Summitt in San Francisco last week, said that “80% of doctors can be replaced by machines.”

Let me just say I’m an optimistic futurist and I think that no human endeavor is immune from automation. Whether we dismiss them I’m sure in my lifetime a computer written novel and song will, by any objective measure, be masterpieces. Economic and human capital issues and consumer comfort aside, cab drivers and airline pilots and even physicians are largely replaceable by machines. While his 80% figure might be high, or maybe not, I don’t think there is anything remarkable about Vinod Kholsa’s basic premise that in interpretation of tests, even radiographs, diagnosis and prescription of treatment computers will be better than man. I think surgeons and proceduralists are safer for a while.

But there’s more to health care than treatment. As Dr. David Liu points out over at The Health Care Blog,

Health and medical care is an incredible intersection of technology, science, emotions, and human imperfections in both providing care and comfort.


There are some things that may never be codified or driven into algorthims. Call it a doctor’s experience, intuition, and therapeutic touch and listening. If start-ups can clear the obstacles and restore the timeless doctor-patient relationship and human connection, then perhaps the future of health care is bright after all.

Consider the reversal of the trend of self checkouts at supermarkets.

“It’s just more interactive,” Wearne said during a recent shopping trip at Manchester’s Big Y Foods. “You get someone who says hello; you get a person to talk to if there’s a problem.”

It’s difficult to imagine a quick embrace, if ever, of a health care system devoid of the human touch. You might indeed someday soon have better care offered by a machine, but primarily the human element, the comfort of the patient, is going to prevent Vinod Kholsa’s dream from coming to fruition in any sort of timely fashion…even if the technology allows for it.