Forget WebMD. Hello, Robot, M.D.

IBM's 'Watson' computing system. Will there be a day when Dr. Watson beeps around the corner and asks you how you feel?

For all that we like to think that our smartphones and tablets are living, breathing extensions of ourselves, the truth is -- technology is kind of impersonal. And yet, the impersonal is about to get very personal -- as in personal health.

The medical community has begun to grapple with the prospect of more technology in medicine. Imagine IBM's "Jeopardy"-beating "Watson" computer reviewing your case history, then making diagnoses and treatment recommendations.

"I'm not saying that robots will replace your doctor. I'm not even saying they should but that we may get to a point where we are going to see some profound changes," The Atlantic Magazine's Jonathan Cohn says. His cover story in the latest issue of the magazine reports on technology and medicine and the future.

Cohn says at the very least, we'll see "very intelligent computers" and more use of data in medicine and treatment.

There are a lot of ways technology can save us money -- eliminate waste, for example. And it could change the way doctors work, those very expensive doctors. If computers and other new technologies can take over some of the work burden, health care could cost less.

But on the other hand, technology in medicine is easier said than done. Those electronic medical records haven't really panned out. And Cohn calls that a reason to be skeptical. If we can't get EMRs right, the technology built on them won't work either.

So will there be a day when Dr. Watson beeps around the corner and asks you how you feel?

Cohn says he doesn't think the future looks quite  that robotic. Cohn writes more about the technological innovations that could change health care in The Atlantic's cover story, "The Robot Will See You Now."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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While interesting, this story perpetuates an oft-repeated fallacy. Doctors' salaries ARE NOT a significant part of the overall cost of health care. While doctors' actions certainly are important (by ordering too many tests and prescribing too many and only the most expensive drugs, for example), doctors' incomes pale in comparison to the cost of drugs, hospitalization, and the cost of maintaining the insurance company infrastructure. Want to reduce health care costs while maintaining quality of care? 1. Fewer prescriptions overall, and more generics, 2. Reduce the bureaucratic nightmare hospitals face, so they can charge less, 3. Reform the medical malpractice system, 4. Single payor coverage for everyone. Instead, we are "squeezing" the system by reducing what doctors and hospitals can charge, without giving them a way to reduce their overhead or a safe way to deliver good care while ordering fewer tests and writing fewer prescriptions while not in fear of a malpractice suit.

EMR's haven't panned out? Give them a chance. According to Himss Analytics, less than 2% of U.S. hospitals have a complete EMR installed as of the end of 2012. Back when the internet had only 2% of computers connected, I'm sure many people thought the internet wasn't panning out then either. Just like with the internet, it is the connectivity between systems that is crucial to the success of EMRs. Adoption of EMRs is ramping up and the true power and benefit of them will become apparent in the next several years as they get linked together through Health Information Exchanges.

The real cost of healthcare is not physicians who account for 10-15% of total health care expenditures. They certainly contribute, but they are NOT THE COST. The cost comes from many much better connected entities in the political system, including certain hospitals, PHARM, lack of end of life care and a generally unhealthy population, malpractice environment and so forth. To anyone who has practiced medicine, the thought of "teams of people" using "technology" to take care of you, particularly in patients who have complex medical histories is absurd. To get these "savings" what are you going to pay these teams of people? 30k each after you spend a few millions on the software and make someone in SF a multimillionaire/billionaire? These are pipe dreams. A health aide costs that much.

An alternative platform for healthcare delivery can be envisioned...however, it will not be cheaper. there will simply be a shift from work of humans to software and robots.
And please understand that a "tech" degree of any kind with or without software can not replace good medical service.

Marketplace just ran a story about robots a few days ago, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that this industry would adopt some of the same robotic innovations as any other.

The trick is simply finding the niches where mechanization can perform routine tasks that don't endanger health but which we currently pay staff (some would say over-priced staff) to do. Every other industry (except, maybe, changing the sheets at the Ritz) has incorporated robotics, so why not?

You know what experiment we should try to reduce medical costs? How about legalizing competition? I should be able to buy a health insurance policy from a Swiss insurance company, my medications from Singapore where they're manufactured, and see a doctor trained in France without becoming a criminal.

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