Years from now, the notion of simple telemedicine will seem quaint. Keep in mind that as recently as a decade ago, most physicians would have denied that telemedicine could ever play a role in the medical profession. Physicians would have argued that this would dismantle the fundamental unit of medical care – the in-person office visit.
Physicians would have rigidly maintained that they had to be face-to-face with their patients. Doctors would need to observe their demeanor, body language, and other non-verbal signals. The physician would need to perform a physical examination to discover additional clues that might help explain the patient’s symptoms. Indeed, medical professionals and others have expressed that the act of touching itself served as a bonding experience between patients and their doctors. The very definition of bedside manners’ implies that the patient and physician are in the same location.
Today, there are physicians who practice telemedicine exclusively. Moreover, this new paradigm is accepted both by medical professionals and the public, who have come to value other priorities such as convenience and efficiency. Many physicians have also come to accept that medical quality can be maintained during most virtual visits, although exceptions exist.
What will the practice of medicine look like ten years from now? It may be deeper and farther into the technoverse than we can imagine today.
The patient may relate symptoms from home to an artificial intelligence (AI) platform and send over a scanned body image or results of a saliva specimen or biometric information, which will contain thousands of data points for analysis. Leading diagnostic considerations will be generated in seconds, along with a proposed algorithm for proceeding with diagnostic testing, which may be conducted at that very moment using technical accessories that would make one of today’s Apple Watch models seem like an abacus. And therapeutics then may be light years beyond picking up a one-size-fits-all prescription at a pharmacy. If AI determines that a patient has appendicitis, a driverless car will arrive in minutes to transport the patient to a facility where surgery can proceed robotically under AI guidance, with no human at the controls. If you think this is fanciful, would you have believed ten years ago that cars and trucks would be able to be operated in a driverless fashion?
This science fiction prophecy transcends medicine. Indeed, nearly all professions and trades will be affected. How important will actual humans be in our lives? I acknowledge that the quality of many functions and activities currently done by members of the human species will improve. But the overall quality of our lives – our humanity – may fare differently.
Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist.