A medical computer simulation in action (Photo: AP)
Would you trust a computer to give you a medical diagnosis? According to two Indiana University researchers, you might be smart to do just that.
The researchers, Casey Bennett and Kris Hauser, have studied a pair of predictive modeling techniques they say can make significantly better decisions about patients' treatments than doctors acting alone.
They found that using the computer model reduced costs by more than 50 per cent, and improved patient outcomes by more than 40 per cent.
So how does it work? Basically, the computer crunches a whole bunch of patient data and comes up with the best action to effect the best possible outcome.
A more technical explanation, if you're interested, looks like this: the team built the system using Markov decision processes, which predict the probablilities of future events based on events that have just taken place. They also added in dynamic decision networks that extend the Markov processes to consider the specific features of those events, making the predictions more accurate.
In a simulation of 500 random cases, they found that their process lowered the cost per outcome from $497 to $189, and improved patient health outcomes by almost 35 per cent. They claim that by tweaking a few things, they can get that number up to 41.9 per cent.
Although the theoretical numbers look impressive, the team isn't suggesting that their computer model is a replacement for a human doctor.
Instead, the technology could be used by a doctor as an additional step in the process of prescribing treatment to patients - basically, asking a computer for its recommendation based on massive data sets that no human being could reasonably keep in mind.
Of course, this theoretical model is just one of many technological explorations taking place in medicine right now. The possibilities seem endless.
For instance, IBM's Watson computer (the one that competed on Jeopardy a few years back) is now being applied to medical questions, with the goal of allowing doctors to access a vast database pretty much instantly, possibly from a smartphone or tablet.
Demonstrating a tablet computer running IBM's "Watson" system Feb. 8, 2013 (Photo: AP)
Even Siri, the voice-activated iPhone assistant, is being considered as a possible aid to medical staff.
Then there's 3D printing, which is starting to create customized prosthetics and even organs.
And of course, there's the potential for diagnosis at a distance, with tools like Skype or FaceTime potentially allowing doctors to interact with patients who aren't in the same room (or even in the same time zone).
There are some regulatory questions around the technology, but it seems likely that one of these days we won't even need to leave the house for a doctor's appointment.