Automating Expert Labor in Medicine: What Are the Questions?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


I argue that the contemporary organization of professional work indicates the limits of answering typical questions about automation and technology in work to understand the practices of experts. Examining the case of automation in medicine, specifically Stereotaxis technology, I analyze a colligation of data on decisions about the uptake of this robotic technology among United States surgeons. I examine data including: procedure efficiency over time, the technology’s affordances for the preservation of surgeons’ bodily capital, changes in the profession’s demographic profile, physician social networks, and clinical researchers’ published assessments. The data suggest that automation of a central task can support and enhance the work of individual experts. They also show that using robotics does not improve efficiency. This case thus challenges the assumption that automation displaces work, at least in the case of professionals. And so, because Stereotaxis becomes more of a complement to surgeons’ work as opposed to a substitute, this case points towards the importance of focusing attention less on job automation than on task automation. The case also highlights that users of the technology (physicians) value it differently than do purchasers (administrators). In addition, it identifies the differing considerations motivating their decisions to adopt or not adopt the technology. And in light of the finding that robotics use is more common among the rank-and-file than the elite, it may be that some professionals perceive automation to afford mobility opportunities. Based on these findings I propose new questions for scholarship on medicine, work, and automation, including those around “expert” versus “unskilled” labor, the body, and workplace divisions of labor.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1672-1692
Number of pages21
JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
Issue number14
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • automation
  • medicine
  • professionals
  • robotics
  • technology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences


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