The future of health and health workers

My son started at medical school last year, and I proudly took him off to buy his first stethoscope. A year later and we now both realise he won’t need one to practise medicine in the future.

Robot DoctorWe are on the brink of a revolution in the health system, and in wider society. From a historical perspective, revolutions that transform society have been occurring with greater and greater frequency. 

10,000 years ago we moved from hunting to gardening, 200 years ago from cottage industries to mechanical production with steam, 100 years ago from steam to electricity and then just 40 years ago from electronic machinery to computers and automation.

Each of these revolutions has had a profound effect on the society of the time and completely changed the nature of work. In the next ten years, we will see profound changes in the health sector as a result of the digital world and the way we work in it.

The next revolution is upon us and gathering pace, with robot-driven surgery; robotic care for the elderly; drugs designed by supercomputers; artificial intelligence assisted diagnosis; gene manipulation, and 3D printed prosthetics. What is not predetermined, however, is where all this will take us. Different scenarios are possible.

Will this new technology mainly replace lower paid jobs like cleaners; orderlies; drivers, and nurse aides, or will it replace the higher paid jobs such as doctors; nurses; technicians; accountants, and managers?

Another way to look at it is will the technology enhance the skills of people at all levels, or will it in the long run replace humans altogether?

Will health care delivery be owned by bigger and bigger global companies (as envisaged by the TPPA) or will it enable local communities, families and individuals to take more control of their care?

From past revolutions, we know several things:

  • We have got more useful things, like better food; less manual labour; better medicines and diagnostic tools, and the internet;
  • These significant changes have all damaged the environment, and made the distribution of the world’s resources more uneven.

We are going into this revolution handicapped by the legacies of the past – already 62 individuals own more resources than half the world’s population – and the planet is verging on respiratory failure. 

Added to this, the value the economy places on human labour is dropping, when compared with capital, as French economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out. 

At the same time, each revolution has created opportunities for society to organise and shape what happens. Cities; democracies; unions; schools, and corporations have all shaped and been shaped by these revolutions.

Looking forward, if we humans want to stay in the game, we’d better get busy and politically organised. A fair distribution of the world’s resources, as well as the protection and restoration of the health of our planet need to come to the top of the agenda. Technological advances in health require human governance mechanisms, to ensure that human relationships, human labour, and human values remain integral.

The stethoscope’s days may well be numbered – but we need to make sure that in replacing a diagnostic tool we do not lose contact with the human heart.

A technologically enhanced society may be inevitable, but a technologically enhanced and fair society won’t come about unless we fight for it, now. 

By Don Matheson