Why AI cannot ever entirely replace a real physiotherapist

John Cowman, chief executive of the CSP has responded to a story by the Guardian about AI physiotherapy.

by John Cowman

All physiotherapists will be able to recall that one moment with a patient that unlocked a mystery.

A look, a throwaway remark, the actions of an accompanying relative.

Those previously hidden parts of the puzzle that when combined with clinical reasoning skills and a deep understanding of the evidence base, enabled the clinician to put the person in front of them on the right path.

That, for me, is why AI cannot ever entirely replace a real physiotherapist.

Our interactions are with humans, and it’s this human contact that means we can meet their needs in a way that AI cannot. This is especially true when patients are presenting with ever greater complexity and co-morbidities.

I’m writing this in response to media coverage of a company promoting what they describe as an ‘AI physiotherapist’ that can assess, diagnose and treat patients with back pain instead of a human clinician.

The CQC has approved the service, as has the MHRA, so we must respect those bodies and seek to understand more about the process and evidence behind those decisions.

We have sought clarification from the HCPC about the use of the term ‘physiotherapist’ in relation to this service.

We value greatly the protected title status of that term and do not wish to see it misused.

AI, clearly, is going to play a big role in healthcare in the future.

It already is in physiotherapy, with AI triage services helping to prioritise and direct new patients.

It holds enormous potential across healthcare that could speed up access to the right treatment, increase efficiency in services and enable clinicians to provide the highest quality care to many more patients.

It promises breakthroughs that could save and transform lives.

All of these benefits would be significant for patients, healthcare systems and public resources.

As such, it is important for members to understand both the current applications of AI in healthcare and its potential future uses.

But matching the scale of the potential is the challenge of the job to ensure it is applied safely, effectively and in a way that reduces, not widens existing health inequalities.

That’s why it must be considered an adjunct – a tool to be utilised by a clinician for the benefit of patients.

The bottom line is this: It is unlikely that AI is going to replace you.

The skills, knowledge and intuition of being a physiotherapist – not to mention the sheer breadth of the expertise that goes far beyond MSK – are likely too powerful a combination for our profession to be replaced by bots.

Moreover, our patients retain a trust in the profession that will endure.

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