Can technology replace doctors?

More than ever before, devices put care into patients' hands. This M.D.'s opinion may surprise.

With the exceptions of pregnancy tests, thermometers, and some at-home blood tests, most medical exams are done in the doctor’s office—and have been since the beginning of medicine as we know it. “We have lived largely in a world of medical paternalism where ‘doctors know best’,” says cardiologist Eric Topol, M.D., author of the newly released book The Patient Will See You Now. “Very rarely did we have people generating their own data,” he adds.

That is, until now.

“We have remarkable new digital tools we never envisioned that are empowering individuals to generate their own medical data, own it, see the costs of their care, and summon a doctor at any time by teleconference or to a home,” he says. “It’s a whole new look at how medicine will go forward and it’s the biggest challenge the medical profession has ever faced—but it’s an exciting one.” The end result: democratization of medicine.

But electrocardiograms via smartphone, detecting an ear infection by way of an iPhone accessory, and having your eyes refracted through your cell’s camera aren’t advances of the far-off future. Much of this technology is here and now—with many more breakthroughs coming quickly, Topol says.

So what does a doctor want you to know as you start taking your health into your own hands? We asked Topol to explain.

research your devices

“Good products are approved by the FDA. Ask your doc what studies were done to validate the device clinically. And answer these questions: Does this device reduce costs? Does it improve results? Both answers should be yes. There are a lot of lemons out there, and you don’t want to use something that doesn’t work—or worse, something that provides incorrect results.

As a cardiologist, I get my patients to buy a blood pressure cup that connects to their smartphone wirelessly. iHealth and Withings sell these things. They basically allow you to get blood pressure readings more often than ever, letting you make a diagnosis in the context of your life. You’re able to become more engaged with the data and see data that I would have never seen before. Another example is Scanadu SCOUT, which is a device about the size of a silver dollar. You hold it up to your forehead and it reads your blood pressure, the oxygen concentration in your blood, your temperature, heart rate, and heart rate variability in 10 seconds.”

have your doctor review data

“I don’t believe this technology is replacing doctors at all—this is simply changing the model. Doctors are fully there to review data, and provide wisdom, experience, and guidance—not exercise all control.”

expect a little pushback

“There are a few reasons doctors oppose this kind of change. One: The medical community, historically, resists change of any kind and doesn’t make big changes in rapid ways. The fact that so much can be done through smartphones now does away with some of the tests doctors used to have to order. That doesn’t always go over well. Many doctors who resist the technology may be excellent physicians, but they’re working in an environment where expectations are different now. And they’ll be superseded by docs who are open with the idea of sharing their notes, email communication, and patients self-monitoring.”

don't want it? don't use it

“This option is coming alive for people who want it. Most surveys show the vast majority of people do want it—but this isn’t for everyone. And if you’re not interested, you don’t have to use it.”