Health care is not immune from innovation making jobs obsolete

by Hans on 2010/04/07

An interesting report from NPR.org, titled “The jobs of yesteryear: Obsolete occupations” got me thinking about what health care will look like in 10, 20, and 30 years from today.

In the article/slideshow, several occupations are shown to be obsolete because they are no longer relevant due innovation. What all of these jobs had in common was that “progress” enabled different roles and responsibilities to be automated. We can already see glimpses of this type of automation with the advancement of clinical decision support systems and different types of tools on the Internet (you enter symptoms and a “probable” diagnosis is returned). I’m reminded of a story that Kevin Leonard shares about how credit card applications used to be the responsibility of a bank manager. Today, the entire process is automated with an application processed within seconds.

What types of jobs will no longer be relevant in health care in the future? The one thing that may stave off the encroachment of innovation in health care is the need for the “personal touch” given the service nature of the industry. I know that there are people working on programs to analyze and evaluate digital images to assist radiologists diagnose cancer.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a role, other than perhaps the transcriptionist, where a job will become obsolete in the near future. What I do know is that those roles where there isn’t a high degree of “higher level learning” involved will be gone. Bloom, a noted educator on learning, articulated a taxonomy of learning whereby in the cognitive domain, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are considered “higher order” learning. Basically, Bloom argues that knowledge, understanding, and application are not very sophisticated. Roles which use only these types of skills are most vulnerable to being substituted by innovation.

While technology and innovation are not the solution to everything, I am a big advocate of transferring any routine function to electronic systems. The reason is so that people can spend their time focusing on solving a problem and using highly educated brains. An example would be a physician who is (unfortunately) forced to spend considerable time collecting information and data from a patient. Use of computerized questionnaires can collect information in a more standardized fashion and also present the information back to the physician in meaningful ways (example – trend lines, alerts, etc). I understand that the clinical exam whereby a physician interviews the patient can be an important and meaningful tool (especially if there is no prior relationship). I’m not advocating that there be no personal interaction. What is important is that we be cognizant of the possibilities of improving care through new innovations.

Health care is not immune to progress. How are we preparing ourselves, our care providers, and our system for the future? Are we giving everyone the skills they need to survive and succeed?

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