Does the thought of jumping into a car with no driver scare you? Then perhaps you’ve never taken a cab in New York City? Or worse, you’ve never taught a 16-year-old how to drive?
What about the idea of receiving medical care without ever seeing a provider? Maybe that’s no more far-fetched than the concept of a self-driving car?
Recently, Inc.® published an article entitled, Apple, Google, Tesla and Uber: 99 Ways Self-Driving Cars Will Totally Change Everything (Sooner Than You Think), that discusses ways self-driving cars could revolutionize the world. Surprisingly, of the nearly 100 earth-shattering changes listed in the article, everything from decreasing pollution to increasing productivity, not a single one directly impacted healthcare.
Think for a moment. How can the next step in mankind’s quest to become more technologically advanced not lead to something such as self-service medical pods? We’re almost there, after all, as much of the visit is already accomplished without human interaction. All that is left is to completely replace the physician.
Consider our current healthcare system. We’re already automating a fair portion of the patient’s registration, check-in, and check-out process via the use of patient portals. In fact, many health systems make it mandatory for a patient to engage the practitioner via the online patient portal for needs such as appointments, medication refills, or any medical record questions or requests.
Even in the urgent care setting, initial contact might often be made via a website or mobile app. This communication allows the patient to check in online or reserve their place in line virtually. Other facilities continue to utilize kiosks or tablets, so the patient can begin entering pertinent medical information into the electronic medical record (EMR) software even before a medical staff member calls their name.
Then there’s telemedicine. In today’s world, telemedicine might look something like a conversation with a physician over Skype or Facetime after a medical assistant has collected vitals and history of the patient’s current illness. Much like a self-driving car, with the right technology (which actually exists today) the physician is just the driver. Extra and unnecessary.
Now before this instigates wrath from the American Medical Association (AMA) or before you decide to send me a little hate mail, I’m not in favor of replacing physicians any more than I’m in favor of replacing most drivers. I’m merely theorizing how technology could progress in that direction.
Consider what we already face: An ever-exploding population and an in-demand healthcare system that cannot keep up. We are a society that has no tolerance for appointments or waiting until tomorrow. Instead, we have come to expect that our needs and wants must be fulfilled now. Pair this mentality with a healthcare insurance system – both government and private entities will not continue to pay for coverage without putting the majority of financial responsibility back on the taxpaying public. Finally, consider all of that governmental bureaucracy that continues to implement regulations that make it difficult for a physician to maintain their own private practice. Oh, and did I mention, fewer and fewer physicians choosing to go into family practice or internal medicine while the population continues to need these services more than ever?
You’re probably wondering what technology is out there to fill the gaps. Almost all the common diagnostic equipment has already been integrated so information can be transmitted electronically. Vital signs monitors, EKGs, even otoscopes and opthalmoscopes can send visualizations across the web. Patients are already transmitting blood pressures, weights, blood glucose readings, and much more online. In fact, most devices today provide some sort of virtual reading to the provider.
But wait! How can a computer possibly understand how much pain I’m in? Can it accurately tell how bumpy my rash is or how red my throat looks? Again, like the self-driving car, the technology only knows what you tell it. Main Street and Mainstreet Drive are two different places. On a scale of one to ten, a pain of five is not going to elicit the same algorithm as a seven. And no – the computer-generated treatment probably isn’t going to be nearly as sympathetic as your real doctor either.
Consider for a moment though, the doctor sitting a few hundred miles away practicing telemedicine. He or she cannot tell how bumpy your rash is either, and most likely, cannot tell how red your throat is (unless the resolution on the screen is really good). This isn’t stopping the growth of telemedicine as an alternative to long-waits or the need to travel to receive care. Telemedicine, in fact, is not just for those who live in rural areas. On-demand medicine is actually just as relevant to patients going to work in urban areas where access to healthcare wouldn’t seem to be an issue, but time is.
Today, it may be self-driving cars. Tomorrow, it may be automated urgent care. Unless you’re the type of person that really despises the self-service check-out line at the grocery store, or never utilizes Amazon, or any online ordering, then perhaps this concept is just too Star Trek for you. But don’t worry, I doubt we have much to be concerned about in the long run – there’s still complex coding, documentation rules, and insurance companies looking for ways to deny claims. I’m sure the physician will continue to be an integral part of the healthcare system for many decades to come. Just ignore if his name is HAL.