Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare: The Future is Closer than We Think

Joseph C. Kvedar, MD & Vice President - Connected Health, Partners HealthCare and Professor of Dermatology, Harvard Medical School Holding respective positions in healthcare industry, Joseph aims to create a new model of healthcare delivery. He is also the author of two books The New Mobile Age: How Technology Will Extend the Healthspan and Optimize the Lifespan and The Internet of Healthy Things.

For more than 20 years, we’ve known that there is a positive correlation between a caring doctor /patient relationship and improved health outcomes. Yet, today’s healthcare model forces providers to spend time on data entry, deal with reimbursement issues and other mundane tasks instead of focusing our attention on caring for our patients. All this is compounded by the fact that, as our population ages — the older we get the more healthcare we need — we will run out of healthcare providers and caregivers.

Enter technology, in particular artificial intelligence (AI). I was inspired a year ago when I read an article in the Harvard Business Review (February 2017) by Megan Beck and Barry Libert,‘The Rise of AI Makes Emotional Intelligence More Important. ’They wrote about how most knowledge workers do a few things repeatedly – gather data, analyze,formulate a plan and execute that plan. There is a clear parallel to healthcare providers: we gather data = medical history and physical exam; analyze = devise a differential diagnosis; formulate = create a care plan; and execute that plan. Beck and Libert also pointed out that with the minimally sophisticated AI we have today; computers can do most of this work more effectively than people. Unfortunately, care providers are under utilizing technology and continually trying to prove that our patients are better off if these routine tasks are done by humans.

Artificial Intelligence can have a major impact on several areas of medicine and care delivery: enabling improved disease surveillance and diagnosis, early disease detection, and the opportunity to discover novel treatments. However, there are also concerns that it will eliminate jobs and disrupt the physician–patient relationship. The wealth of data now available-- including clinical and pathological images, and continuous biometric data--along with Internet of Things(IoT)devices, can work together to power the deep learning
computer algorithms that lead to AI-generated analysis and predictions.

Healthcare providers must learn to outsource routine tasks to machines, freeing themselves to focus more on caring and human connection, judgment and attention to quality care. We must develop technologies to enhance and support the human interaction between a healthcare provider and patient. If we do this, I believe we would improve care and satisfaction levels of both providers and patients.

"From a diagnostic aid for the physician, to symptom checkers and a virtual mental health counselor, these products all share one thing in common -- a backbone of artificial intelligence"

Companies like Uber, Amazon and even the banking industry have integrated their digital and in-person experiences. In the case of Uber, for example, the service is delivered in person by a human, but the surrounding experience is made incredibly more pleasurable, convenient and efficient for the consumer and the driver by the use of technology.

Chatbots Represent One Important Component of this Future
Chatbot technology also creates some very interesting opportunities in healthcare. We are early on in the application of this technology in healthcare, and have yet to address several critical issues, including whether or a chatbot can make an individual feel well cared for.

In order to achieve this, an individual’s conversation with a chatbot has to approach feeling human. This is not a new concept. In 1950, Alan Turing developed a test where a human being interacted with a computer and,in order to pass the test,the computer needed to seem human to the person. Over the years, computers have gotten better and better. Alexa and Siri are ubiquitous now, but do they pass the test? Only in a very narrow way.

But, the functionality required in bots used for frontline healthcare interactions may not need to be as sophisticated. Several years ago, we collaborated with Tim Bickmore, a computer scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, to investigate whether a software bot could motivate people to be more physically active. We called her ‘Karen the virtual coach’and she had both visual(a cartoon-like persona) and auditory (an early speech-to-voice engine) components.The study showed that folks who interacted with Karen three times per week were significantly more likely to achieve their exercise goals than those who did not. Interestingly, we found that participants either loved or hated Karen. At the end of the study, a few participants asked for her phone number as they contemplated inviting her on a date!

Innovation will Drive the Market
Our study was published in 2012, and in the last few years, a whole burgeoning industry of chatbots for health has sprung up. It is still early going and, in my experience, none of these products are quite ready for prime time.

There is much rapidly-moving innovation in this space - from companies with vastly different personas and consumer/patient interactivity. From a diagnostic aid for the physician, to symptom checkers and a virtual mental health counselor, these products all share one thing in common--a backbone of artificial intelligence.

At some point, the first part of a patient's healthcare journey will be interacting with software like this. In some cases, that’s all that will be required. In others, the interaction will move to a telemedicine solution with a provider and, in still other cases, the interaction will move to a face-to-face experience with a provider.

How far into the future is this?I believe it's closer than we think.