Could AI really replace human doctors?

An article published last month in JAMA Internal Medicine sparked debate as its findings revealed that AI chatbot responses to patient questions were better in quality and empathy scores. The difference in perceived empathy between AI and humans was particularly stark, with AI demonstrating “empathetic” or “very empathetic” responses at a rate nearly 10 times that of human doctors. Does this indicate that AI would be better at doctoring than humans?

Empathy is key to healing…but is devalued in our healthcare system

No matter the technological advancements made, AI will never be able to fully imitate human connection. There is something unique about the trusting relationship between patient and provider, about person-to-person contact, that is innate to healing. A popular refrain states that the first evidence of civilization was a fractured femur that had healed, demonstrating that at some point, at least one human had taken care of another one until they had healed. Society is built around empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings.

“The art of medicine is a process for nurturing a special human relationship that champions a partnership for healing.”

– Dr. Bernard Lown

Most healthcare workers enter the field to care for those in need. But the system we have now makes it difficult to practice medicine in a way that fosters connection. As Jennifer Lycette, a rural community hematologist/oncologist from Oregon, notes in her STAT opinion piece, the pressure placed on physicians to get through as many patients as possible, as fast as possible, is not conducive to compassionate care. The pressure to be as “efficient” as possible has resulted in less time with patients and more time documenting. The burnout in some hospitals has gotten bad enough to push medical residents to unionize.

Time pressure pushes physicians to go-go-go. The lack of quality time with patients has documented negative impacts on physician well-being, empathy, and patient outcomes; could it be that AI performed better than doctors because of a systemic flaw and not an individual one? 

AI could support, not replace, human healthcare

It’s worth noting that the JAMA IM study is not completely comparable to real-life circumstances. Researchers could not ethically feed real electronic medical records into AI without violating HIPAA, so patient questions were chosen from a Reddit forum. This does not diminish the validity of the questions but could influence how human physicians answered them. Online culture, particularly Reddit, does not prioritize empathy and the humans responding may have followed online communication norms rather than professional communication norms. Human respondents were also not familiar with the entire medical history of the patients and may have had better results if they were seeing them in real life. 

This study suggests that AI at least has the potential to support quality, empathetic care. Already, AI is being used to streamline administrative tasks, answer patient questions, and for machine learning; its likely that in the near future there will be more AI scribes and virtual nursing assistants. As the technology continues developing, AI will be used to supplement care but it can’t replace doctors. The art of healing is a human one.