Will technology take docs' jobs, salaries?

Faster than you might think, robots are coming after doctors' jobs, according to a recent article from Slate. And those who are most vulnerable to the rise of technology may be surprising, according to author Farhad Manjoo, whose wife is a pathologist. It's highly trained specialists--those by definition who focus on narrow slices of medicine--who may first find themselves at least partially replaced by machines.

Though many of the computer-aided technologies currently used to read mammograms and pap tests are still in the concept stage, years away from becoming integrated into most practices, the long-term economic implications are real. "As robots help each doctor do more, there'll be less work for everyone, which will push down salaries," Manjoo writes. "And the doctors who are the juiciest targets for automation might not be the ones you'd expect. They're specialists like my wife-the most highly trained, highly paid people in medicine. It's precisely these factors that make them vulnerable to machines."

In contrast, Manjoo predicts that more versatile (currently much lower paid) physicians, such as those in primary care, will not only have more job security but will find their work enhanced by newer technologies.

Dr. Sarah Kramer, a family practice doctor in a suburb of Seattle, told Slate that patients' tendency to research their health conditions online before coming in the office has, rather than replaced her, deepened her conversations with patients. For example, a patient with high cholesterol may arrive in the office already knowing he or she needs to make lifestyle changes. From that starting point, Kramer can help them set sound expectations based on her more extensive medical knowledge.

And although robots such as IBM's Watson may one day take up more of the daily work of primary care, no machine can replace a doctor's most important--yet poorly renumerated--skill: the ability to communicate personally with patients.

"It's possible that robotics will change this calculus; if machines begin to decrease the need for--and the salaries of--specialists, perhaps primary care will look more attractive," Manjoo writes. "There's some evidence that this would be good for patients and for the healthcare system."

To learn more:
- read the article from Slate

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