Would You Go to a Robot Doctor?

Why digital doctors are the future of medicine

We use digital technology every day for getting across town, checking the latest news, and communicating with people around the world.

But would you trust a machine—not a human doctor—to diagnose a serious health condition?

A lot of people are saying "yes."

According to a new study from Penn State University, people are becoming more accepting of the idea of machines taking on the role of doctor. People with high confidence in machine performance and also in their own technological capabilities are more likely to accept and use digital healthcare services and providers.

The study:

The research team wanted to understand the stereotypes people have about machines, including their beliefs in machines' infallibility, objectivity and efficiency.

They asked the participants to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as, "When machines, rather than humans, complete a task, the results are more accurate." This helped them to measure the participants' belief in the machines themselves.

The team also asked them different questions to rate their "power usage," which shows their level of expertise and comfort in using machines.

Their findings show that the higher people's beliefs were in machines, the more positive their attitude was toward robots. And a person with advanced computer skills is more likely to be accepting as well.

They also gauged whether people had a preference towards different forms a machine might take. For example, are people more comfortable if the robot is human-shaped?

It turns out, respondents had almost equally positive attitudes toward all forms of digital healthcare provider, regardless of whether they were human-like, an avatar or a robot. This means designers can direct resources toward improving features such as chat functionality instead of trying to anthropomorphize healthcare robots.

The benefits:

This digital healthcare "revolution" is nothing new. The use of telehealth—medical care received through remote communications, such as smartphone apps, email, telephone, text, video, or the web—has been on the rise for years.

As we progress in an era of technological advancement that pushes conventional boundaries, it's becoming easier to let go of traditional humanity in favor of a more advanced scientific lifestyle.

By 2016 at least half of U.S. healthcare institutions and hospitals were using some form of telehealth. It’s even prompted a new set of World Health Organization guidelines on digital health technology.

According to S. Shyam Sundar, James P. Jimirro Professor of Media Effects, the healthcare industry has a lot to gain from increased reliance on automated systems.

"Doctors are limited by their human bandwidth, by their experience, knowledge and even state of mind from minute to minute," he said. "In contrast, machines can be programmed to 'think' of all the possible conditions that a patient's symptoms could point to, and they never get tired. Some level of automation is clearly needed."

Additionally, increasing the number of people with advanced computer skills and the general belief that machines are trustworthy may increase the adoption of automated services over time.

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