As a third-year medical student, I spend my days winding through the labyrinth of a bustling hospital, presenting patients, and facing a formidable assembly of seasoned doctors, field experts, and diligent residents in training. I know what my purpose is: to learn. And yet — while my role is clear now, I worry that for the doctors of the future, explaining our purpose may prove far more difficult.
Health care is undergoing a gradual metamorphosis under the influence of artificial intelligence (AI). This transformation is not in the distant future, but today: The CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, wrote that gains in processing power will give rise to superhuman intelligence, not in a century, but within a decade. Current medical students will become doctors in an era when much analytical work can be automated. Will we be able to justify our purpose when AI can talk to patients, analyze data, and even recommend treatments as well or better than humans? I believe we can. But to do so, we will need to transform what it means to be a doctor.
AI on the Horizon
For those skeptical of AI, recent strides paint an undeniable picture of progress. Algorithms can analyze medical images, identify anomalies, and interpret tests with accuracy rivaling that of experienced radiologists and pathologists. AI multimodal diagnostic tools can stand shoulder to shoulder with physicians in diagnosing common conditions like pneumonia from chest X-rays or skin cancers from lesions. Beyond diagnosis, some companies claim AI technology could even recommend treatment plans independently; Google’s Med-PALM 2 scored an 85% on the USMLE and is now being tested in clinical settings. We would be naive to believe that medicine will not be affected when other industries are being transformed today.
Whether we are ready or not, patients across the world have already begun turning to AI. And why shouldn't they? These always available AI advisors promise infinite patience, no clinician fatigue, and the ability to transcend language barriers. They are armed with the collective wisdom of millions of books, case studies, and data. Plus, they cost patients almost nothing. Within the hospital, informal adoption of AI tools has also quietly begun. On clinical rotations, my peers have confided that they sometimes turn to algorithms for quick diagnostic assistance when overwhelmed. Studies show AI can accurately recognize common presentations, broaden and tune an initial differential, and grasp nuances in disease progression with skill comparable to that of physicians with years of experience. This is different from the clinical algorithms we are familiar with in medicine. Conversational AI like the GPT family appear to use human-like reasoning and “think” using medical illness scripts.
Redefining the Physician’s Role
In the future, my generation of doctors will be called upon to serve as translators; explaining the benefits and limitations of AI in health care to anxious patients skeptical of handing care over to "robots." This transition will not last long, however: the youth of today are growing up having conversations with ChatGPT, Bard, and Bing, and will likely feel comfortable with a future “DocGPT.”
With AI poised to match or surpass human analytical ability, what will it mean to be a doctor in the (near) future? The answer is simple: While AI excels at analysis and pattern recognition, quality medical care requires human judgment, ethics, and compassion at the bedside. As such, the traditional role of the physician must evolve. Patients seek treatment personalized to their lives and their specific disease presentation — not just illness scripts or efficient data analysis. With AI handling the massive amalgamation of data that defines the modern era of health care, doctors could be freed up to spend time on personalizing care — they could use the ever-expanding body of medical research to optimize treatment in real time, and could hand the mundane illness scripts and known treatment patterns off to their AI counterparts.
Further, I believe that the advent of AI can allow doctors to expand their profession, working to coordinate multidisciplinary care teams and design systemic improvements to care delivery; becoming researchers and disease experts; and ensuring health policies put patients first. By updating our role, we can ultimately preserve the sacred human-to-human relationship in healing.
Regrettably, recent research indicates that a significant knowledge gap exists among students and physicians regarding AI, preventing physicians from applying AI in practice and explaining it to patients. This is why it is imperative to make changes, to transition our role, and to complement the skills of AI: so that we allow the physician to define industry, not the other way around.
Adapting Medical Education
In today’s world, the advent of AI has not yet crossed the threshold of medical education. Medical schools still largely prepare students to work as solo clinical decision makers. Much of our first years are populated by writing countless notes and drilling illness scripts. With medical information growing at a breakneck speed, information overload abounds. With limited time, students are pressured to focus on pattern recognition and rote memorization, as our lives are dominated by a never-ending barrage of exams. In fact, pattern recognition and recall are skills which AI can and will master, leaving future doctors without a moat. As medicine evolves, so too must medical education to maintain meaning and purpose for students dreaming of becoming doctors. Schools must prepare doctors to become managers, overseeing AI work while providing direct contact, human judgment, and informed care for patients.
Rather than focus on memorizing organ systems and pattern recognition, medical curricula should elevate the unique human skills tomorrow's doctors will need. We should prioritize knowledge capture, not knowledge retention. Students should be taught and tested on their ability to read and apply up-to-date medical literature and research in patient settings, as opposed to their ability to memorize knowledge which quickly becomes outdated. We should emphasize the ability to provide personalized care aligned with a patient's unique priorities, and the building of deep patient relationships. We must teach students statistics, probability, research review — and their application in care decisions. Future doctors must be trained to become nimble lifelong learners prepared to evaluate emerging technologies.
A soon-to-be MD from my program shared that she wished the program had taught her how to effectively use existing tools, like ChatGPT, to save time on notes and clinical minutia. Schools need to add structured training for applying AI judiciously as a support tool to improve patient outcomes and reduce physician burnout. And schools can benefit from including AI in the education process, through personalized tutors and updating patient case simulation systems, such as DxR Clinician, with more realistic, AI-generated, student-centered practice.
Embracing AI as our Partner in Medicine
We must serve as leaders guiding the development of AI tools, not passive bystanders fearing replacement or hiding behind restrictive regulation. And we must adapt quickly, boldly envisioning how human clinicians will not just survive, but thrive in the age of artificial intelligence. In the immediate future, physicians would be well served by the development of CME courses in collaboration with the companies at the forefront of AI development, so that we stay informed on the rapidly advancing capabilities of AI and their applications in the clinic. Creating programs for physicians-in-training to work directly with the tech industry will also be critical.
Thankfully, our field is slowly waking up. In his September State of the School Address, Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley spoke about the need to integrate AI into medicine and research. He said that HMS will be making comprehensive adjustments to medical and graduate education, so students are equipped to use AI in the future.
Though the coming decade of change may seem daunting and unlike the changes we have seen before, human ingenuity advances alongside technology. Master clinicians 100 years ago could hardly fathom modern medicine — from genome sequencing to immunotherapies to robot-assisted surgery. But we adapted medical education and created new roles, and the purpose of the physician remained secure.
Medicine will remain at its core a human profession. While physicians of the future will rely heavily on AI assistance to provide care beyond what any one person could do, only human doctors can provide the empathy, personalized care, informed judgment, and innovation that patients will always depend on. By evolving medical training to complement AI's benefits, we can ensure physicians stay central to quality care. Our purpose will remain learning, caring, and healing long into the age of artificial intelligence.
Did you learn about AI in your medical training? Share in the comments!
Aditya Jain is a third-year medical student at Harvard Medical School. His previous works include "The Future is STEM" and medical fiction shorts for In Vivo Magazine. He is a published researcher on the applications of artificial intelligence in medicine. When he's not busy with rotations, he enjoys playing guitar, reading sci-fi, and nature hiking. He tweets @adityajain_42. Aditya is a 2023–2024 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.
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