Microsoft eyes ‘robotic doctor’ to cut health costs in poor countries

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A leading figure in the information technology sector believes virtual doctors can help raise health standards in the developing world.

Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, says growth in the world’s population means low-cost technologies must become accessible for billions of people. 

“One of the areas we are looking at is robotics. We’re developing a robotic triage doctor, capable of learning and reasoning, which projects an avatar of itself onto a screen. It listens to patients and can make a diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment,” he told EURACTIV. 

The virtual medic is already effective in dealing with 16 of the conditions most commonly affecting children across the world but that, says Mundie, is “just the tip of the iceberg”. 

The technology could help address the shortage of doctors experienced in the developing world, which has arisen due to weak educational infrastructure and a ‘brain drain’ of home-grown doctors. 

“It’s a question of getting enough trained manpower into certain areas. This robotic doctor gives us the ability to take some subset of medical practice and bring it to villages where that expertise is scarce. The next question is how do you keep updating the knowledge, but technology makes that a lot easier too,” Mundie says. 

He believes people with relatively limited medical training will, with the help of information technology, be able to provide a higher standard of care than currently exists. In particular, they can help with “wellness coaching” and health promotion initiatives to reduce the prevalence of ill health. 

An ongoing challenge for innovation in health care is to balance technological progress with cost containment. The traditional model of incremental increases in medical devices may prove unsustainable, according to Mundie, who advocates a more radical rethink of where innovation is going. 

“In the future, we have to be able to do a better job for more people for less money. And technology is the answer,” he says. 

He suggests that rather than striving to make increasingly more sophisticated imaging technology for the few, the focus should be on how to harness existing technology for the many. 

Mundie says combining smart phone technology with a basic plug-in ultrasound USB device can make ultrasound available to large numbers of people at low cost. This, he says, can help cut maternal mortality in a world which will have to support nine billion people by 2050. 

To read the interview in full, please click here.  

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