Can A.I. ever replace human doctors? Health tech experts weigh in

Key Points
  • "I don't think at this stage, we are 100%, or even close to 100%, sure that AI can replace a historical high-touch type of doctor-patient relationship," said Dr. Chun Yuan Chiang, a health practitioner and founder of IHDPay Group, a health care payments firm.
  • Still, experts say AI — defined broadly as machines programmed to mimic human intelligence, in areas such as problem-solving and learned behavior — has reshaped the medical landscape.
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Artificial intelligence is 'enhancing' healthcare: IHDpay Group

From detection to diagnosis, digitization is widely being accepted as the new approach to medicine.

Health care practitioners and patients are quickly embracing digital apps and advanced technology to get to the bottom of an ailment.

But can technology and artificial intelligence ever replace doctors?

"I don't think at this stage, we are 100%, or even close to 100%, sure that AI can replace a historical high-touch type of doctor-patient relationship," said Dr. Chun Yuan Chiang, a health practitioner and founder of IHDPay Group, a health care payments firm.

"In terms of diagnostic aid, it's a different category. So, I would say at the end of Day 4, the patient wants recovery," he told CNBC's Nancy Hungerford at a panel discussion at East Tech West conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China on Tuesday.

Changing landscape

Still, experts say AI — defined broadly as machines programmed to mimic human intelligence in areas such as problem-solving and learned behavior — has reshaped the medical landscape.

"We used to use x-rays to detect lung cancer. The problem is you can only go to stage 3 or stage 4 with x-ray," said another member of the panel Dai Ying, chief innovation officer for GE Healthcare in China.

"Now, with CT you can see all lung modules, and with AI can tell where it is and how big it is. It's much more advanced than before," he said referring to computed tomography scans used to detect medical conditions.

Diagnosis of ailments and diseases is being done remotely these days. Health care providers are connected via centralized systems that can monitor patients remotely. But can AI replace a doctor's visit for those that are remote?

"We are building telemedicine in our apps today where you can consult a doctor from the convenience of your homes, not for emergency," said Jai Verma, CEO and board member of insurance company Cigna DIFC, and global head of government solutions at Cigna International. "I think AI, internet of things, are going to change the way we deliver health care in the future."

Verma also believes that along with AI, blockchain technology will make it easier for heath care companies, professionals and patients to share medical records, and that many insurance companies are already looking at integrating blockchain into their modern systems.

Blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, is a public ledger of every transaction that has taken place.

Fraud and costs

As health-care providers plough millions into AI-powered machines, blockchain and other expensive innovative technologies to improve the future of medicine, there are concerns that health care costs could go up.

Experts think otherwise.

"I think the technology is going to help us streamline the operations and reduce our operating costs," said Verma, pointing out that most costs these days are associated with manual work. "AI would help you to make it automated, so the future systems are going to help reduce your costs."

In China, one of the largest health care markets in the world, Dai said AI can play an important role in improving efficiency for the hospitals. "I don't think AI is all the time adding to costs," he said. "In most cases, it saves the costs."

However, concerns about fraud and data privacy persist as medical records get exchanged electronically.

Verma, who works for insurer Cigna, noted that many people misuse health care identities. "We lost a lot of money on fraud with people using the (ID) card and accessing the care for someone else," he said adding that dispersing of incorrect medicine is a big risk with digitization.

Chiang pointed out that efficiency can be brought about by preventing fraud or moral risks, and that his company is committed to safety and authentication. "We provide a platform that everybody can use … to make sure it's the right doctor, real doctor, real pharmacists, real drug, real insured person etc."