17% of psychiatrists see technology replacing humans in providing empathetic care, according to Sermo survey

Most psychiatrists don't foresee artificial intelligence replacing human doctors in performing complex psychiatric tasks, but they do anticipate the technology having an impact on their jobs. (noipornpan/GettyImages)

Healthcare researchers have been exploring the use of artificial intelligence to help diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder by analyzing a patient's speech and to help treat anxiety and depression.

Could AI replace a psychiatrist's role in providing mental health care? Most psychiatrists don't see AI making their jobs obsolete, according to a recent survey from Sermo, a social platform for physicians.

Sermo teamed up with psychiatry and health technology researchers at Duke University School of Medicine and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School to query nearly 800 psychiatrists in 22 countries about the potential benefits and risks of using AI and machine learning in mental health and the impact on the field of psychiatry.

Only 4% of psychiatrists believe AI will be able to replace, not just assist, human doctors in performing complex psychiatric tasks. But 17% say technology is likely to replace a human’s role in providing empathetic care, according to the survey. 

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More female (48%) psychiatrists than males (35%) were uncertain that the benefits of AI and machine learning would outweigh risks. More U.S. psychiatrists (46%) than those in other countries (32%) were uncertain of the overall benefits of these technologies.

Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness, according to data from the National Institutes of Mental Health. Many organizations are exploring the use of AI and machine learning in behavioral health.

These technologies are expected to have a huge impact on most areas of healthcare as organizations pilot AI tools for patient data and risk analytics, medical imaging and diagnosis, drug discovery, precision medicine and hospital workflow management.

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The majority of psychiatrists don't believe it's likely that AI will replace human doctors for complex tasks such as a mental status exam, assessing risk for violence and determining the need for hospitalization.

But they do see these technologies replacing physicians by providing patient documentation such as updating medical records and synthesizing patient information to reach diagnoses.

“It is time for us to stop thinking about AI as a battle of machines versus humans. We need to instead focus on how AI can optimize and improve clinicians’ abilities to deliver better care,” Murali Doraiswamy, M.B.B.S., a professor in the departments of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

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"The findings from this survey also raise questions about the preparedness of the profession to navigate technological change in the delivery of patient care," Charlotte Blease, Ph.D., research fellow in general medicine at Harvard, said in a statement.

While doctors were skeptical about the prospects of AI and machine learning replacing them, half of psychiatrists felt that future technologies would significantly impact their jobs. These technologies could aid doctors by providing more accurate diagnoses, reduced administrative burden, continuous patient monitoring and individualized drug targets to reduce side effects, according to the survey results.

Doctors also see AI assisting with the integration of new streams of data from wearables and genetics and helping reduce human errors.

Researchers and physicians have identified many ethical and safety concerns of using AI in healthcare. “This should be a high priority for research since even a single line of bad code could have serious repercussions,” Doraiswamy said.