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Hello, Dr. iPhone: Would you use an app to diagnose your ailments?

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 11, 2012 05:15 PM

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medical training doctors.jpgBy Lacey Nemergut

It seems like every few months, consumers are forming long lines to purchase the next hottest advance in technology. These new devices add incredible convenience to our everyday lives and enhance our experiences -- as long as we’re not too busy playing with them to stop and enjoy what’s going on around us. But leaving something as serious as your health and well-being to a rectangular piece of computer chips and plastic? That might be going a little too far.

Earlier this year, TechCrunch released an article discussing how some iPhone apps can diagnose certain ailments, eliminating the need to visit a primary physician, and how similar technology may -- and logically could -- replace doctors all together.

“The entire encounter [of a doctor’s office visit] should take no more than 15 minutes…and, as we all know, most of the time, it turns out to be some routine diagnosis with standard treatment…something a computer algorithm could do if the treatment involved no harm,” writes Vinod Khosla, a Silicon Valley investor, founder of Khosla Ventures, and the article’s author. He argues that highly specialized technology could replace approximately 80 percent of doctors; the other 20 percent -- the cream of the crop; the talented, detail-oriented, and incredibly educated -- can stick around.

There are 200 million health and fitness applications currently available, Khosla writes, and approximately 14 percent of the United States population use mobile devices for medical advice. Certain vital tests can already be performed at home with an app (think WebMD 2.0), and Khosla believes that eliminating office visits would shorten the time between when a patient schedules an appointment to when he receives diagnosis and a prescription for his ailments.

“It is not hard to image [a device] having more data than the doctor since my full patient record would be at the tip of its digital brain, unlike the average doctor who probably doesn’t remember my blood glucose levels or my ferritin from two years ago,” Khosla writes. “[My doctor] does not remember all the complex correlations from med school in which ferritin matters,” but an app would.

And yet, Boston-area students are still applying to and enrolling in med school. Patients still seek expert advice instead of relying on digital diagnoses.

“Doctors will never cease to be needed -- even the general practitioners. But they have and will continue to adapt to the technology as it becomes available to them,” said Julie Avrutik, a prospective medical student. “They will learn how to use this new technology during training in medical schools and how to integrate it into their practice of medicine.”

There are irreplaceable benefits to physically going to a human doctor rather than consulting a heartless machine, Avrutik said. For example, “most electrocardiogram machines analyze the graphs of the electrical outputs of the heart and make a tentative diagnosis, but you still need a human being with years of experience to contextualize all of the details,” she said. “No matter how well the algorithms are written, you would need a trained technician who uses a standard procedure for inputting the data so that the software can analyze the data.”

Furthermore, a machine can’t replace human intuition and training, said Sishir Yeety, a Boston University pre-med student. “The other issue is that these programs are never perfect, and anyone with a computer knows that.”

In anticipation of heated objections like these, Khosla writes that “IBM’s Watson computer, I understand, is now being applied to medical diagnosis after handling imprecise and vague tasks like winning at Jeopardy, which experts a few years ago would have said could not be done.”

And while Avrutik recognizes that “technology that could establish a normal baseline for a patient…and then cull through that vast data set for deviations from the norm could potentially aid the doctor in assessing the correct diagnosis and course of action,” there is one irreplaceable thing a human doctor has that a machine never will: emotion.

Patient-doctor relationships and their value in both diagnosis and recovery “cannot be undervalued,” said Avrutik. “Patients are more willing to share potentially sensitive information with someone who they trust and who shows genuine compassion. “

How would you feel about using a computer program or smartphone app to diagnose an ailment?

Photo by Army Medicine (Flickr)

About Lacey -- With a passion for liberal arts and an addiction to excessive writing, I somehow ended up at a business school. I currently attend Bentley, where I plan to major in economics and finance. In an attempt to hang on to my true devotion, I write for the news section of the Vanguard. For me, the greatest thrill of the job is conducting interviews and listening intently as people reveal their stories.

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