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. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Capital-Labour Substitution:
Robotic Doctors

According to CNN [thanks to Jack for the link (and I just saw a similar piece on BBC)],

A London hospital has two new members of staff -- two robotic "doctors" that can carry out ward rounds in place of human physicians.

The robots will be trialed in a general surgery ward and the accident and emergency department at St Mary's Hospital. They will also be used for surgical training for junior doctors at London's Imperial College.
It looks pretty speculative so far, to be honest. The doctor gets to sit in some other room and control a robot rather than visit the patient. Maybe that would be useful for someone with SARS, but I really doubt it would be very valuable in this situation:

"If a specialist is at a conference in California but their medical opinion is needed for a St Mary's patient or to deliver a lecture to junior doctors, the RP6 robot provides an instant and global link at any time of the day or night."

... The specialist controls the robot off-site using a joystick, and is in full control of the robot's movements, head monitor and camera. The doctor can see the patient, ask questions, read patient records, view X-rays and test results from a console.
In some instances, having a physician familiar with a case use the robo-doc might be reassuring to a patient; but often the face-to-face contact with an on-call physician will be valuable, too.

The main problem, though, is that it does not really allow substitution of capital for labour, which is crucial in the Canadian and British health systems. Rather, it uses capital to permit the substitution of one form of labour for a different form. It doesn't really help provide more health care at lower costs for the society.

The one aspect I liked near the end of the story is the continued growth in the use of artificial intelligence to assist in diagnostics. This use of computers to assist diagnoses in medicine has been going on for over 30 years [I recall former colleague, Bob Woodward, telling us about it back in the mid 1970s]; surely it could be a valuable part of the robo-doc, increasing the speed and accuracy of diagnoses.
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