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"The AI Program Will See You Now:" Healthcare's future in a world dominated by software

©Frnck V. on Unsplash

Machines will replace eighty percent of all doctors in the healthcare system of the future. The startling statement in the article in 2012 by one of the premier thinkers and entrepreneurs in the computer field, Vinod Khosla, set the readers back on their heels. Physicians’ career choices were now in jeopardy and all those years working toward it were for naught?

No physicians, just machines? Forging ahead in his argument, Khosla proposed that the “best solution (is) to get rid of doctors and teachers and let your computers do the work, 24/7 and with consistent quality.”

He was proposing that “Doctor Algorithm” or “Dr. A,” would match, if not be better than the top 20% of physicians. Dr. A was better in terms of diagnosis and recommendations for treatment in practice. Was he right?

Voiceless and uncaring, artificial intelligence (AI) is pushing the envelope of medical care and, in the process, forcing physicians to re-think how they practice. AI has become the sine qua non in the future of medicine and medical care.

But it’s not as Orwellian as first predicted by Khosla, and that’s where it makes a splendid difference. Who among us is gifted enough to read the future of any new technology? One thing we do know, however, and that is that seeing a physician was always stressful.

Medical appointments were never something I skipped to with joy in my heart. I am aware of “White Coat Syndrome” that sends my blood pressure skyrocketing, my heart racing, and the sweat beading up on my forehead. The apprehension is never a question of having a fatal illness, but just stepping into that waiting room with the smell of disinfectants in the air is enough for me.

The need for all those rule-out diagnoses and tests whenever a physician thought he saw something “odd” brought no joy. The exams were relatively primitive; heart, lungs and stomach check, maybe ears and throat and a blood draw. AI’s “back-up” second-opinion feature could have prevented those unnecessary tests and saved money and lowered my stress in the process.

AI Will Fit in Nicely

Advances in computer science and artificial intelligence (AI) will have a significant effect on patients and practitioners alike. The once-dreaded visit to the medical office may prove less traumatizing as a result. Robots can be reassuring, or they can be silently efficient. Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, urged Dave to take a stress pill, didn’t it? Hal is also confident that all the circuits are working perfectly. Everything comes down to coding.

Not all physicians see a grim tomorrow for their profession. As one physician said, “We firmly believe that we can empower providers to make their interpretations and diagnoses easier, faster and better. AI will not replace providers, that is certain…However, it is evident that AI will augment our abilities to accomplish more and decrease chances for errors and redundant work.

Medical Specialties Most Affected

Radiologists were prime targets for AI as though standing on a cliff without realizing they were about to go over. The cliff, of course, was artificial intelligence’s entrance into image reading. However, instead of eliminating or decreasing the importance of radiologists, AI has augmented their ability to rapidly have imaging information available to an ever-increasing number of patients. Patient caseloads could be increased, and waiting time for readings decreased at the same time.

The advent of modes of scanning and MRI equipment increased the need for radiologists to utilize new technologies such as AI. The future is bright as AI becomes their unswerving, ever-available assistant rather than their replacement.

A pulmonologist, who frequently must do pulmonary function tests (PFT), has found that utilizing AI in interpreting and matching symptoms came up with the correct diagnosis in 82% of the cases. The physicians believe that this is a compelling supportive tool rather than one that conflicted with their abilities.

Asthma is one of the most common chronic medical diseases in childhood, and 6 million American children suffer from it. Data from 2013 indicated that almost 14 million days of school were missed because of asthma attacks. The cost of medications, physician visits, emergency room trips, and hospitalizations rose to nearly $60 billion a year.

Asthma, therefore, would seem a prime area for utilization of AI. There is an incredible future use where AI could be used to predict asthma attacks. An AI algorithm comparing patient records of asthma attacks with climate data would be able to indicate when an attack might be most likely to occur. This data would provide the physician with the ability to ward off the attacks by properly advising patients.

Wearable Sensors and Telemedicine Emerge

Medical specialties where AI will or is playing an active role include general practice where wearable sensors can detect a variety of problems. IBM has a fingernail sensor to monitor patient movements and disease progression. Other wearables can monitor cancer cells circulating in the patient’s blood, sweat production, and blood glucose, to name a few medical tasks. Hundreds of items and apps are available to consumers and medical staff alike. The market is estimated to be $100B by 2023.

Patient data will continuously be up-to-date in all specialties. Dermatology will benefit from a more accurate reading of biopsies. Other specialties such as oncology, surgery, ophthalmology, sports medicine, rehabilitation, gastroenterology, emergency medicine, and infectious diseases will also see benefits. Large data sets with memory banks that are unmatched by human limitations will increase both diagnostic accuracy and treatment recommendations.

Telemedicine is becoming a hugely popular offering in healthcare. A recent Global Market Insights report found that the sector was worth about $38.3 billion in 2018, and that figure is projected to swell to $130.5 billion by 2025.” Physicians will come to view it as another tool in their medical arsenal to fight disease.

AI in healthcare is promising a bright future. All patients populations will benefit as it enters ever-more areas of healthcare and the provision of medical services all over the world. A cell phone and a computer screen will be the norm as patients talk to their physicians in easily-arranged appointments. The 50-mile drive to see a physician will be a distant memory as the new age of medicine takes its place.

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