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How Automation Is Transforming Healthcare Jobs

December 21, 2021 at 12:00:00 AM

All jobs are vulnerable to some degree of automation, including those in healthcare. The specter of automation delivers a quick stab of panic for many as they imagine their future.



How Automation Is Transforming Healthcare Jobs


A.J. Ghergich

All jobs are vulnerable to some degree of automation, including those in healthcare. The specter of automation delivers a quick stab of panic for many as they imagine their future.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described this process as creative destruction. Automation captures two sides of a single coin: promise and threat.

History teaches us that technological advancement produces more opportunity than it eliminates. But tell that to the switchboard operator or gas station attendant.

Replaceable You

"Not me — not my job," you say? Well, yes, many people believe that their job is not on the proverbial chopping block. The list of reasons is long: You’ve got extensive training. You have a list of degrees behind your name. You're creative. You're smart. You work in a booming industry. You're an essential worker, for crying out loud!

But the data wizards from McKinsey tell a different story: Half of our current work is subject to automation using the technologies we now have. And this means a wholesale transformation of the workplace is well on its way.

The bottom line: Your work is about to change. So how will that change you, the worker?

Healthcare: A Temperature Check

The healthcare sector of our economy has increased its share of our national economy. About 18% of national output, or $4 trillion, is directly attributable to healthcare, and more than a third of this healthcare work could be automated.

Advances connected to robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning have already changed healthcare. As a result, we are witnessing what some experts call “the rise of the data-driven physician.” Both current and future doctors will need to navigate a sea of big data as digitization and its allied technologies wind their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of our daily routines and work life.

This means re-training and re-tooling to adapt to the changing landscape of healthcare. For example, medical students are taking more and more courses in data-oriented subjects, as indicated in the chart in the Stanford Medicine 2020 Health Trends Report (PDF download).

So what part of you gets automated?

As the McKinsey analysts predict, "Activities most susceptible to automation include physical activities in highly structured and predictable environments, as well as the collection and processing of data." We see this now with robotic surgery, patient monitoring and the analysis of medical scans and images to identify cancer, tumors and other anomalies. In just this way, automation will continue to expand our notions of human-machine partnerships, as it changes both worker and work.

Fasten Your Seatbelts: A Bumpy Ride Ahead

The pace of change will only speed up. Futurist Ray Kurzweil observes that healthcare has become an information technology, obeying the “law of accelerating returns.” This means that gains will stack up at an exponential rate as inputs decrease at a similarly rapid pace.

Peter Diamandis endorses this insight and pushes it even further in The Future Is Faster Than You Think. As a wide range of information technologies move forward, they are more likely to converge with synergistic impacts. Take, for example, drug development. Diamandis explains that new drugs are emerging "not only because biotechnology is accelerating, but because artificial intelligence, quantum computing and [other technologies] are converging on the field."

Help Wanted: The Takeaway

Will machines displace people? Not exactly. But work done without a significant technology boost will become increasingly rare. In the future, we will all be working with or alongside these intelligent machines. As McKinsey analysts predict, as much as half of current work activities will be automated by 2055.

But healthcare will be different by then — and, yes, dramatically better. Diagnoses will become increasingly automated and driven by massive amounts of patient data. These big data sets will be captured, stored, analyzed and interpreted in real time. As a result, do-it-yourself diagnostics — done in the home with the aid of discreet, self-monitoring devices — will become common.

In the process, healthcare will shift and become less of a reactive, rearguard response to sickness and more of an always-on, AI-enabled system to steal the march on the advance of illness and disease. And then, when interventions are required — things like surgery, drugs and even the replacement of human organs — they will have advanced to the stage where they are more precise, more available and more cost-effective.

Take stock of current practices, and you’ll observe that we’re well along our way to this data-driven, tech-empowered healthcare future. But more needs to be done. It will require letting go of old approaches and techniques, learning new skills and sidling up to that machine we thought was out to replace us.

We may be on the road to a better healthcare future, but it won’t happen automatically.

What should you do?

Automation will disrupt your career path at some point. But that doesn’t mean it will necessarily destroy or eliminate it. A commitment to master new skills gives birth to a critical success factor: motivation.

Try these approaches:

1. Get upskilled. Take a page from the next generation of physicians gaining competencies their predecessors scarcely knew existed: advanced statistics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, coding and programming. New training is increasingly accessible and affordable.

2. Get credentialed. Professional development and educational programs are rapidly adapting. Just-in-time delivery, self-paced instructional formats and stackable certifications are becoming the norm.

3. Get going. You don’t need to chase every fad or fashion. Instead, discover which way the wind is blowing and trim your sails accordingly.

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