UK

'Patients Want Human Doctors, Not Robots', Medics Tell Jeremy Hunt

'Hunt must stop using every opportunity to dodge real investment'.

13/09/2017 14:42 BST | Updated 13/09/2017 14:56 BST
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Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has predicted NHS doctors could be replaced by robots which can diagnose disease

Doctors have aired their disagreement with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt after he suggested robots could replace NHS medics by diagnosing diseases within a decade.

Speaking at a conference in Manchester, Hunt said of the NHS in 2028: “We may well not be going to doctors for a diagnosis, we might be going to computers instead.”

But GPs and experts have said Hunt’s embrace of virtual diagnoses betrays patients’ desire for “human interaction”, which machines will likely find difficult to replicate. 

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NHS doctors and experts have criticised the suggestion that machines could replace human medics

NHS GP and British Medical Association council member, Dr David Wrigley, told HuffPost UK: “I think my patients value the human interaction and subtle issues can be picked up by a doctor in a face to face consultation.

“Computers cannot do this but they do have a role for providing reliable information to patients but I would have significant concerns at the present time if computers were allowed to make a diagnosis - and I presume decide on a treatment thereafter.”

Others suggested patients will never accept robots as replacements for human doctors.

Junior doctor and campaigner, Dr Ben White, told HuffPost: “I don’t think NHS patients will ever want apps to replace the human interaction of health professionals.

Hunt must stop using every opportunity to dodge real investment in the NHS Dr Ben White

“But some can certainly benefit from the right health improvements. Technology is not a panacea: it could help, but it could also increase the strain on health services. We should be mindful of this.

“The bottom line is Hunt must stop using every opportunity to dodge real investment in the NHS. Stop ushering in venture capital, start proper taxpayers’ public health investment. Whether it is nursing salaries or new apps, he must have the courage to have the hard conversations with the Treasury.” 

Professor John Williams, who directs the Health Informatics Unit at the Royal College of Physicians, said practices such as blood sampling and other procedures would still need a human touch.

Williams said: “Modern medicine is a very human partnership between patients and doctors, working together for the best outcome for the patient as a whole.  

“Other than in the support of potentially automated processes such as the dispensing of medicines, the taking of blood and other simple procedures, it would be difficult for robots to replicate this collaborative and empathetic relationship, particularly for patients with complex medical conditions.”

It comes as Hunt unveiled a new target of 2018 for the launch of digital services such as online appointments and organ donor registration.

He said day-to-day health administration should be available to patients via apps, including ordering repeat prescriptions, expressing end of life care options, and accessing NHS 111.

Hunt added that doctors may in future have access to more medical information, potentially enabling the prevention of disease before symptoms even appear.

He said: “And when we do go to a doctor, he or she may will be comparing your medical record with our fully sequenced genome and giving us much more accurate predictive information.

“We may will be in a world where if we show any symptoms of a disease, we consider that a sign of failure – because the name of the game will be to catch diseases when we are asymptomatic and we have a much better chance of being able to nip illness in the bud.”

The Press Association reported that Hunt said he wants patients to be able to view their GP interactions on an app “as simply as you can look at your entire order history on Amazon”.

But Professor of Primary Care at Oxford University, Trisha Greenhalgh, said on Twitter: “Our focus groups [found] older patients actually want... to be able to phone up and get a human being.”