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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Human doctors' warmth should be valued as AI develops

Rika Kayama

I might be a doctor, but sometimes I get ill as well. I catch colds, I develop rashes, and I've hurt my back in the past after falling over.

    So what do I do in times like this? Well, as a doctor working in a hospital, the easiest solution is to consult with another physician in the relevant department at work, and ask them to prescribe me some medicine. In fact, I'm even able to do this while we're chatting in the hallway. "I can't stop sneezing," I might say. To which the reply would be, "You've got a cold, haven't you. I'll prescribe something for you," and that would be it.

    However, whenever I'm ill, I actually try to go to other hospitals for a consultation. One of the reasons for going elsewhere is that I want to understand what it feels like to be a patient. By putting myself in the patient's shoes, I've been able to grasp the anxiety one feels when waiting for a doctor to explain a set of test results.

    Another reason is that I find that medicine prescribed at a different hospital feels more effective. Of course, there aren't really any major differences in terms of the kind of medicine you receive, but there is something to be said about putting yourself in the patient's position. Sitting down in the consultation room chair, being examined by touch in a polite manner, being listened to with a stethoscope, and then being told, "Right, I'm going to prescribe you this drug" -- this process alone seems to cure half the illness. "Frame of mind" is something that is very important, I think.

    Looking ahead though, with artificial intelligence (AI) continuing to progress, it is said that "robot doctors" will soon be able to make more accurate diagnoses than human doctors, and be able to prescribe more appropriate drugs. Certainly, when it comes to detecting tiny lesions that might be missed by the human eye, or running through reams of data to select the most appropriate medicine, robots have an advantage over humans.

    However, AI also has its limitations -- namely, the human, empathetic touch. Simple natural phrases such as, "OK, open your mouth wide. Ah yes, your throat is red. It must be difficult for you to swallow," possess a distinct reassuring quality. "It's OK. I've got some good medicine for you. This will surely improve your situation." Such warmth is almost definitely beyond the realm of robots.

    AI enthusiasts might respond to these claims, saying, "A robot doctor would use more appropriate words than an ungenial human doctor would." However, is this a good enough counterargument? If a brilliant robot doctor were introduced at my workplace, would I stop going to other hospitals, and start telling the robot about my symptoms, in an attempt to receive encouragement and medicine?

    No, I would first need to worry about being replaced myself! I can see myself being told, "You can stop coming to the psychiatric department now. We're going to start working with the robot instead."

    With this in mind, I am determined to keep trying my best as a human doctor and continue to provide the natural touch that can only human beings can offer. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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