A title like “Computer bests humans in skin infection diagnosis,” is sure to get my attention.
Can computers beat doctors in actually providing medical care? A recent study was reported as showing that “a computer program diagnosed a serious skin infection more accurately based on symptoms than emergency room physicians.”
Cellulitis is a deep skin infection that may be erroneously diagnosed in patients who have allergic or irritation reactions in their skin. Investigators from Rochester, N.Y., and Los Angeles, Calif., evaluated patients who were hospitalized for cellulitis by emergency room physicians. Dermatologists and infectious disease specialists found that 28 percent of the patients had been misdiagnosed and did not have cellulitis. The admitting senior residents were asked to make a list of the possible diagnoses of these patients and to input characteristics of the patients’ conditions into a computer program that provided a computer generated list of possible diagnoses. The investigators found that the computer listed the true diagnosis more often than did the resident physician.
The study does provide some evidence that a computer program may help some non-specialist physicians come up with a more comprehensive list of possible diagnoses than they would on their own. The authors of the study concluded that the technology “has the potential to direct providers to more accurate diagnoses.” They didn’t mention that having longer lists of possible diagnoses means that the technology also has the potential to direct providers to more inaccurate diagnoses, too, and that doing so could result in needless testing.
This study relied upon the expert skills of human physicians to make the gold standard judgments about whether patients had cellulitis or not. While the computer program could help clue some doctors in to possible diagnoses they may not have considered (both accurate and inaccurate possible diagnoses), patients ultimately still depend on the good judgment of their physicians.
At DrScore, we’re excited about using digital technologies to improve medical care. Giving doctors feedback from patients and making medical care quality more transparent are surefire ways to enhance care. But computers are not beating, besting or replacing doctors just yet.