Dr. John Lantos answers question, ‘Do we still need doctors?’

Dr. John Lantos

Doctors have been around since the beginning of human civilization. But are they still necessary today?

John Lantos, M.D., director of the Bioethics Center at Children’s Mercy Kansas City Hospital, broached the subject on Dec. 10 as keynote speaker at the School of Medicine’s annual Noback-Burton Lectureship.

For much of early civilization, doctors offered little more than a caring bedside presence, Lantos said. Advanced medical science, however, changes the way people think about doctors and what they can do.

School of Medicine founding dean Richardson K. Noback, M.D., for whom the annual lectureship is named, once described the doctor as a morally responsible problem solver on behalf of people experiencing difficulty.

Lantos asked to imagine what would happen if artificial intelligence could be used to remove from doctors the moral responsibility of making decisions. Similarly, he asked, if algorithms can be developed to solve many of the problems that doctors use their minds to discern, will we still need doctors?

He quoted Eric Topol, noted cardiologist and former head of the Cleveland Clinic and Scripps Institute for Translational Research, with the answer.

“We will still need doctors to give the human touch,” Lantos said. “We still need doctors to provide empathy.”

Lantos said doctors still need to learn how to have difficult conversations with their patients. Where the tools to keep people alive were previously not available, doctors today can keep people alive while their bodies are failing.

“The result is that almost every decision about death is preceded by a decision made by doctors, patients and family members about when and whether to withhold or withdraw potentially life-prolonging medical treatment,” Lantos said. “That is a skill that doctors didn’t used to have, didn’t use to need. Now it is a crucial part of medicine.”

Patients still want their doctors to know them as individuals, Lantos said. And doctors, in many cases, want to know their patients as individuals.

“To imagine that we will always fail seems like it might be a pessimistic view, but it’s not,” Lantos said. “It doesn’t negate the remarkable achievements of medicine. It does, however, suggest that the role of the doctor has changed dramatically. Maybe the doctor’s expectations about the role and nature of their work no longer aligns with the work they actually do.”

The Noback-Burton Lectureship was established in 2016 to honor Noback, the school’s inaugural dean and Jerry Burton, M.D. ’73, who is recognized as the first graduate of the medical school.