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Who is to blame for a medical error: doctor or machine?

Because medical errors are so common – a 2016 study said about 250,000 Americans are killed each year by medical errors – researchers have developed technologies to help reduce human mistakes. A hospital in England has developed an artificial intelligence system that examines chest scans to identify heart-attack risks. The results apparently indicate that the AI system is outperforming cardiologists.

Robot-assisted surgeries are already taking place, of course. All of this prompts the question recently examined by news site Quartz: “Who is to blame when a machine botches your surgery?” When the surgical error is by a robot or an algorithm, who is to blame for the damage to the patient?

A law professor interviewed for the article pointed out that compensation in medical malpractice cases is not only for the victims of doctor or hospital negligence. “Liability is supposed to discourage people from doing things they shouldn’t do,” said the professor.

A former NHS doctor who is now an AI policy researcher said we should not allow technology developers to push the latest developments into use without careful consideration. “We need to put patients and safety first.”

But there is concern that the AI systems already in existent could be misused. AI is intended to help surgeons make decisions rather than making judgements for them.

So at this point, if a medical error occurs, the physician (typically the person using the system) is liable in almost all situations say experts. The expectation is that doctors or other health professions will look at the data and recommendations from AI and then weigh other considerations, including tests, the patient’s medical history and recommendations from other doctors before deciding how to proceed.

As medical technology gets increasingly sophisticated, these questions about liability and negligence will need further examination.

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