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People Are Ready For Future Health Tech–But No One Wants A Robot Surgeon

Health trackers and sensors? Bring ’em on. Personalized medicine based on a patient’s DNA? Great. But don’t let a robot cut me open, thanks.

People Are Ready For Future Health Tech–But No One Wants A Robot Surgeon
[Image: Rubber gloves via Shutterstock]

As a 23-year cancer survivor who has benefitted from personalized medicine, Eric Dishman, general manager of Intel’s Health Strategy & Solutions Group, knows the value of health care innovation. He’s not the only one. In a new study, Intel found that respondents of all ages around the world are ready to embrace futuristic technologies like toilet sensors, swallowable health monitors, and personalized medical treatments based on genetics. There’s just one exception: robots performing surgery. Everyone is a little freaked out by that (and rightly so).

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Intel’s study, the Healthcare Innovation Barometer, surveyed 12,000 respondents from eight countries who represent the full range of age groups. “We had done some smaller surveys, but this one was surprising,” says Dishman. “The optimism of the role that technology was going to play was much higher than we’ve seen before, and there’s a lot more awareness of personal health technology and interest in actually doing it.”

In the survey, over 70% of respondents said they were amenable to technologies that collect health data, like prescription bottle sensors and toilet sensors. Some 66% said that they were comfortable with personalized care based on their genetics, and 53% said they would trust a medical test they give to themselves as much as one given by a doctor.

In fact, half of respondents believe the hospital will become obsolete in the future, with the rise of self-tests and video conferencing for routine doctors’ appointments. Dishman believes the survey results were so positive because of two things: health care reform, which has passed in over 36 countries in the past few years; and the smartphone app explosion around consumer health.

“There’s consumer awareness of issues of how broken health care systems are and how bankrupt countries can be,” he says. Plus, consumers now have certain expectations of health tracking from electronic devices–you wouldn’t be scared of an app that measures your heart rate, so what’s the big deal with a sensor on your pill bottle or toilet?

According to the study, acceptance of health care innovation is global and irrelevant of age–with a few exceptions. Baby boomers are more comfortable sharing de-identified health information for research than millennials, for example. This seems counterintuitive at first since younger people usually embrace technology first, but in this case, it’s not. Younger generations have fewer health woes, so they don’t care as much about sharing health data. Older people, on the other hand, know the value of medical research. “It’s the younger people thinking they’re invincible,” says Dishman.

Singapore, Japan, and China also have much higher expectations for robotic health assistance. This especially is important Japan, which has a skyrocketing elderly population and not enough young people to take of everyone. As a result, Dishman believes a market for crude, early forms for robotic assistance–like an infinitely patient robotic walker–will emerge in Asia first.

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But what about those scary robotic surgeons? The overwhelming fearfulness of the technology (it was the most feared on Intel’s list) may just be the result of a miscommunication. There are two ways that someone could interpret the phrase “robotic surgery.” One is the practice–which happens today–of a clinician controlling a robotic scalpel that has more dexterity and control than the human hand. The other is the Jetsons-like idea of sending a robot over to your house to perform surgery. Intel meant to ask about the first scenario, but not everyone understood that, Dishman says.

Now that it’s clear that consumers are ready for the next wave of health technology, the health care system has to step up. The next big challenge is to make sure that data coming from remote devices is reliable–that it hasn’t been hacked, that patients haven’t changed it so they look healthier, and so on.

But Dishman is confident that in the next decade, remote diagnostics and genomics will move into the mainstream. Maybe, even further down the line, those intelligent robot surgeons will even start to seem less creepy.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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