Dr. Manny: Study confirms human docs better than computers— why that's a good thing

Ever since the Affordable Care Act came to be, there has been a concerted effort to computerize health care, and this goal has come with wanted and unwanted effects on patient outcomes.

For example, computerization is great when it comes to having accurate medical records or evaluating statistical outcomes, especially if the data entry is accurate. But there is also an underlying way of reliance on the use of computer technology to triage patient care, as well as directly help with the differential diagnoses and the recommendation of possible therapies for patients.

When considering the relationship between human and digital MDs and the quality of patient care, I find a recent study by Harvard University research quite interesting. For one of the first times I’ve seen, we have some objective data that suggests humans in health care have a better understanding of the multitude of factors that need to be considered to make a diagnosis, and I hope that people in high places who are making decisions for our country get a chance to talk and evaluate this data.

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For the study, researchers compared the performance of 235 physicians with 23 online symptom checkers, including those offered by Web MD and the Mayo Clinic. When the human doctors and online systems got the same information, such as medical history and symptoms, the doctors got the diagnosis 72 percent of the time compared to only 34 percent for the apps.

Although computer algorithms got the diagnosis correct when the conditions were more common and less serious, doctors got it right more often for the more serious conditions and more uncommon diagnoses. Nevertheless, the humans got the correct diagnosis first more often for every case— and that is significant.

While the study authors as well as the experts who weren’t involved in the research have said human and digital MDs both have a place in doctor’s offices— and certainly these apps can encourage patients with serious medical conditions to seek emergency care— I was personally excited about these results. That’s because the data gathered illuminate the need to put more resources on the human factor rather than computerized health care.

I think the whole world benefits from that health care label “Made in America”— and let us hope that it’s made in America by humans, rather than by machines.