Key takeaways

  • From detection through to treatment, robotics and AI are increasingly being employed in healthcare.
  • PwC asked more than 11,000 people from 12 countries about their attitudes towards the use of such technology in place of traditional doctor consultations.
  • Although responses vary by country, findings reveal that 55% of the public are willing to use AI and robotics as part of their healthcare.

Ten years ago, the idea that a robot could administer a blood test at a hospital or diagnose symptoms at your local clinic read like the plot of a science fiction novel, rather than a sign of the way the healthcare sector might evolve. But these days, the relationship between artificial intelligence (AI) and the medical world is anything but fictional.

In August 2016, researchers from Houston developed AI software that claimed to review mammograms 30 times faster and 99% more accurately than doctors¹. In December, Google’s DeepMind machine learning platform partnered with the UK’s NHS Healthcare Trust to process vast troves of patient data, screening for potential illness². Meanwhile, DNA testing company Pathway Genomics is developing an app that provides personalised health advice based on patients’ genetic backgrounds.

There’s no denying that the fields of robotics and AI could accelerate the speed and accuracy of medical services — while revolutionising the way treatments are accessed and delivered.

What Doctor? Why AI and Robotics Will Define New Health, an April 2017 report by PwC, charts the deepening alliance between new technologies and the medical sector.

The report also examines the way patient attitudes towards the use of AI and robotics in place of traditional doctor consultations — a scenario that may be on the cusp of becoming reality — are starting to shift.

Surprisingly enough, the report, which draws on a survey conducted on behalf of PwC by YouGov Research and takes in the views of respondents across Europe, The Middle East and Africa, found that there’s a growing appetite for AI when it comes to healthcare, even if this level of acceptance is dependent on the medical service in question.

Here are four takeouts that offer insights into our changing perceptions of AI in the medical sphere:

Over half of all patients are open to robots
replacing doctors during traditional consultation

Scheduling a visit with a general practitioner, when struggling with a sickness or experiencing a symptom that you can’t decipher, is a regular ritual in modern life.

But although this face-to-face element has always been considered central to healthcare, it’s worth remembering that doctors spend as much time analysing medical records and interpreting data as they do liaising with patients.

Perhaps that’s why over 55% of participants are willing to engage with robots or AI rather than doctors if the technology could answer health questions, conduct tests or make a diagnosis based on symptoms.

The research indicates that the human aspect of interactions between patients and doctors is less important if test results are more accurate and medical treatment can be accessed faster.

The response to robotics in the healthcare sector
varies from country to country

Despite a high willingness to accept AI and robotics among respondents, when you look closer at the breakdown of countries, a strong pattern emerges.

Nigeria, Turkey and South Africa are by far the most receptive to the prospect of robots and AI platforms across the medical sector (94%, 85% and 82% respectively). It’s a finding that could correlate with the lack of reliable and fast medical access in this region.

Meanwhile, Germany and the United Kingdom are the only countries in which unwillingness outweighs willingness, a reluctance that could hint at a deeper aversion to change.

Older patients
are as receptive to AI
as younger patients

Logic often dictates that the younger generation, who are generally the fastest adopters of technology, are also the most willing to embrace new trends. But according to What Doctor?, there were no significant differences between age groups — respondents ranging from 18 to 55 were evenly split between willingness and unwillingness.

A significant proportion of respondents
are willing
to have specific treatments administered by a robot

Interestingly enough, there was also a widespread consensus on the specific treatments patients would be willing to receive from a robot, a finding that we could attribute to the fact that different medical procedures involve different levels of trust and risk.

Consumers across every region were most responsive to AI platforms that could monitor heart conditions (41%), administer a test based on a heartbeat’s rhythm (31%) and provide tailored advice for health and fitness based on individual preferences and health records (37%).

Respondents were less reluctant in the case of cancer treatments (17%), bandaging wounds (10%) or delivering a baby (1%), procedure that require a greater level of care and more specialised medical knowledge.

Procedures respondents were willing to receive from an AI/robot. Click to enlarge.

Although the notion of clinics staffed by robots is still rooted firmly in the future, the report paints a powerful picture of the way technology is reshaping the cornerstones of healthcare and changing the way doctors and patients will engage and interact.

To find out more about the way technology is changing the medical landscape, read What Doctor? Why AI and Robotics Will Define New Health here.