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Will Robots Replace Mental Health Professionals?

July 31, 2019
A new survey explores the impact of artificial intelligence on psychiatry.

Imagine sitting in a psychiatrist’s office. Behind the desk isn't a human, but instead is a robot asking you to describe your feelings.

A new report published by Sermo, a global social platform for physicians, explores the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in the mental health field.

“It is time for us to stop thinking about AI as a battle of machines versus humans. We need to instead focus on how AI can optimize and improve clinicians’ abilities to deliver better care,” said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, psychiatry and medicine professor at Duke University and study partner.

Sermo, along with Dr. Doraiswamy and Dr. Charlotte Blease, Harvard research fellow in general medicine, assessed 791 psychiatrists across 22 countries. Survey respondents were questioned about the likelihood that future technology would replace, not just assist, human doctors in performing complex psychiatric tasks.

The pilot survey of psychiatrists was conducted globally from April to May 2019 to understand whether or not future technology, specifically AI/ML, could replace the average psychiatrist in performing 10 specific psychiatric tasks, according to the survey methodology.

Psychiatrists overwhelmingly agreed that technology would not make their jobs obsolete. Only 4% believed that AI potentially could replace humans, and only 17% indicated that they were concerned that robots could replace a human in providing empathetic care.

The majority of survey respondents (67%) said it was unlikely that future technology could replace human doctors for tasks such as assessing a patient's mental status, assessing potential for violence (58%) or determining whether the patient needs to be hospitalized (55%).

"The findings from this survey also raise questions about the preparedness of the profession to navigate technological change in the delivery of patient care," Dr. Blease said.

In fact, mental health professionals surveyed indentified two tasks AI technology reasonably could replace humans. Seventy-five percent of respondents said technology could assist with providing patient documentation such as updating medical records, while 54% said it could help with synthesizing patient information to reach diagnoses.

Researchers attibute the skepticism and uncertainty expressed by doctors and technology to the "hype" around AI and the fact that respondents placed high value on human interaction and personalized professional analysis. In addition, psychiatrists potentially could be underestimating the pace of technological advancement.

Although doctors were skeptical about the prospect of being replaced by AI and machine learning, one in two mental health professionals supported future technologies in evolving how they handle their jobs.

While doctors were skeptical about the prospects of AI/ML replacing them, one in two psychiatrists felt that future technologies would significantly transform their jobs. Psychiatrists also predicted that AI/ML could aid in more accurate diagnosis, reducing administrative burden, 24/7 monitoring, individualized drug targets to reduce side effects, integration of new streams of data from wearables and genetics, and reducing human errors, according to research findings.

Above all, psychiatrists were concerned about the ethical and safety concerns of AI integration into medical practice.

“This should be a high priority for research since even a single line of bad code could have serious repercussions,” cautioned Doraiswamy.

Sermo, global social platform for physicians and largest health care professional survey company, along with psychiatry and health technology researchers at Duke University School of Medicine and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School collaborated on collecting and analyzing survey responses.

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