The Role of Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare
The release of ChatGPT’s artificial intelligence took the world by storm in 2022, leaving most casual users amazed at the type of content it could produce. Want to build a customized workout plan? Check. Want to rewrite your resume? Check. A list of topics for a dinner party or work lunch? Check and check. While it’s clearly impressive that ChatGPT has knowledge on an unfathomable number of topics, its primary awe-inspiring feature is its ability to rapidly create novel content that generally reads as if it was written by a human.
This revelation set off ongoing discussions in nearly every field about the opportunities, threats, risks, and benefits of AI technology. Healthcare is no exception to this discussion, especially given the high-stakes nature of patient care. So how exactly can we expect AI to be used (and not used) in the healthcare industry?
What is Artificial Intelligence?
Before jumping into the role of AI in healthcare, it’s important to understand what defines artificial intelligence. The original concept of AI dates back to 1956, when John McCarthy described it as the science and engineering of making intelligent machines. On a big picture level, AI refers to technology that is able to perform tasks that typically require a human level of intelligence and insight.
All AI technologies have the same foundational mechanisms. They are programmed with sets of data to develop algorithms that allow them to quickly generate output based on pattern recognition. AI tools like ChatGPT are programmed with enormous data sets. This is why they are capable of both generating your grocery list and recommending the next book you should read. Other tools, such as those used in the healthcare industry, are programmed on more limited data sets related only to their intended use. So while the “A” in AI stands for artificial, in reality it functions more as augmented intelligence that helps humans perform all kinds of tasks.
How is AI Used in Healthcare Today?
Although the term “artificial intelligence” still has a futuristic ring to it, the truth is that AI has been used in the healthcare setting for decades. Current uses of AI in healthcare include data analysis, clinical decision support, and disease diagnosis and treatment, among others.
Radiologists were early adopters of AI tools, which makes sense given the technology-forward nature of their work. As of 2020, the American College of Radiology reported that 30% of radiologists had adopted AI technologies. AI tools are currently being used by radiologists to detect intracranial aneurysms and pulmonary embolisms. Furthermore, they supplement routine radiologist workflows by tracing tumors and measuring the amount of fat and muscle on a CT.
Another example of the current role of AI tools in healthcare is the use of natural language processing in clinical documentation. Natural language processing describes the way in which technologies like ChatGPT can interpret typical human language input to generate meaningful output. Tools like Nuance’s Dragon Ambient eXperience are able to transcribe a patient/clinician interaction and use this information to generate appropriate electronic clinical documentation.
What’s the Future of AI in Healthcare?
If you’ve ever used Siri on your iPhone, had Netflix suggest movies you may like, or used Google Maps to get to your destination, then you already know that AI technology is here to stay, and the healthcare sector is no exception to this. So what does this mean for the future of medical care and those who provide it?
Most experts agree that AI will not replace doctors or other healthcare professionals, and it’s unlikely that patients will be scheduling visits with a ChatGPT-like bot anytime soon. Instead, AI technology will be used to enhance processes and workflows, improve quality, and assist with making sense of the massive sets of patient data that exist in healthcare organizations.
While any new technology used to provide patient care requires meticulous vetting and consideration of its ethical implications prior to widespread use, the benefits that high-quality AI tools can offer in the healthcare industry have the potential to substantially improve care delivery and reduce costs and administrative burden.
It’s no secret that the US spends more money on healthcare than other economically similar countries. AI technologies that automate, streamline, or improve processes can reduce healthcare costs. For example, one healthcare system noted a savings of $3 to $4 per visit when they changed to an automated scheduling system.
Improved Patient Care:
AI-powered patient monitoring tools offer the ability to not only monitor metrics such as vitals signs, but also to take that data to the next level by looking for patterns that may indicate an impending medical emergency. Such tools are being developed for use both in the hospital setting and for home monitoring of patients.
Reduced Physician Burnout:
Burnout notably affects a significant number of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, which has the downstream effect of growing numbers of healthcare workers leaving their jobs. Therefore, AI tools that can alleviate pain points that contribute to burnout, such as time spent on clinical documentation, can serve to reduce this threat to the healthcare workforce. For example, an AI tool that collects patient health information in advance of a doctor’s visit and automatically generates clinical documentation was shown to reduce intake and documentation time by 90%.
Enhanced Quality & Safety:
AI’s ability to quickly analyze large sets of data leads to important implications for patient safety and quality of care. Examples of this include AI tools that accurately predict which patients are developing hospital acquired infections and others that monitor hand hygiene practices and provide reminders to clinicians to improve compliance.
AI in Healthcare: The Future is Now
Current trends in the development and implementation of AI in the healthcare setting all point in the same direction: AI is here to stay. AI tools offer the potential to address some of the most pressing concerns in today’s healthcare industry, including rising costs, physician burnout, quality, and patient safety. In particular, one area of healthcare that is ripe for disruption with AI is surgical care.
While the adoption of AI technologies in healthcare should be held to the same standards the industry uses for other elements of patient care, such as drugs and medical devices, it’s clear that organizations that are slow to adopt AI as it becomes mainstream may be left significantly behind their competitors. Therefore, the time is now for healthcare leaders to explore evolving technologies and the potential solutions they may offer.