As consumers, we experience artificial intelligence (AI) every day. In fact, we’ve come to expect the consumer experience it enables, such as Amazon’s highly personalized suggestions for additional items we might like. Now is the time to gain AI’s rewards in healthcare as well. Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, put it this way: “If properly and humanely deployed, AI has the potential to restore efficiency to a wide array of burdensome healthcare processes, freeing up physicians to treat their patients in the way they deserve. The path won’t be easy, and the end is a long way off. But with the right guard rails, medicine can get there.” 
While there are significant challenges with interoperability, data sharing, and data access, organizations are taking several approaches to overcome them. With an incremental approach to data management and analytics, healthcare organizations can reap the benefits of AI – specifically machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) faster, enabling them to overcome challenges and achieve success in value-based care.
AI and Its Subsets
First, it’s important to have a shared understanding of AI concepts. AI is a term used to describe the ability of machine intelligence to imitate human intelligence through cognitive functions and behavior. Both ML and NLP are subsets of that broader concept. ML applies algorithms and statistical models that effectively perform a specific task or make predictions using patterns and inference. NLP enables computers to understand, interpret and manipulate human language using computational linguistics. At the highest level, these tools can be applied in healthcare to help find the answers to questions and identify root causes—leading to workflow improvements at a massive scale.
Technology Advances Speed AI Adoption
Advances in data and analytics technology are making it possible to significantly reduce implementation time for AI projects. From a data management perspective, five years ago, it would have taken two years to implement a strategy and infrastructure for data management needed for AI. Hence, many organizations applied a project-by-project approach and didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to reuse data for multiple projects. The results were data silos and missed opportunities to leverage data across the enterprise.
Today, new technology and new data approaches expedite projects from the data, analytics and learning perspectives. Specifically, today’s late-binding architecture enables organizations to take only the data needed for a question, metric or pattern, and then curate additional data as needed. This opens the door for going beyond the standard healthcare sources, such as claims, HL7, and CCDA, to also include historically cost-prohibitive data, such as social media, benefit information and unstructured data. These data sets can be leveraged to determine the most effective engagement models, risk patterns and communications. Today, if organizations start by asking the right questions before implementing a new data set, they could have answers in as little as three months, rather than years. By leveraging existing infrastructure and data in conjunction with new technology, organizations can begin to see success more quickly, while building out an incremental, long-term strategy.
Putting AI to Work Answering Healthcare Questions
When organizations take advantage of the new technologies that enable sophisticated data analytics, they can more easily apply ML and NLP to specific data sets. Start with a question and determine what data can best provide answers. The examples to follow illustrate questions organizations might ask to improve clinical outcomes, revenue assurance, or operational efficiency.
Clinical Best Practices: Using ML, healthcare organizations can more effectively analyze treatment patterns by asking questions, such as: What interventions during a clinical encounter help avoid sepsis? Or how can an ED visit be prevented? Once there is an understanding of what contributed to positive outcomes, organizations can embed care protocol improvements within clinical workflows.
Population Health: Again, using ML, organizations can thoroughly analyze populations, treatment patterns and results by asking questions, such as: Which segments are having trouble and how can they be addressed? Are issues arising that are related to geography, benefit structure, or disease pattern? ML can be applied to sift through many dimensions and identify root causes. For example, a member of a diabetes population segment lives within a certain zip code, sees a certain provider, and is more likely to be readmitted. By asking the right question, variations in care can be identified, and protocols and workflows can be adjusted to improve outcomes.
Utilization Management: Healthcare organizations, especially ACOs, strive to improve quality while tightly controlling costs. Using ML, organizations can look for variations in practice patterns across providers, patients and conditions. From there, organizations can implement protocols that operationalize utilization management. For example, duplicate exams, such as expensive MRIs, can be avoided by making recent results available to providers at the point of care. And providers can be guided to the most cost-effective location for a given procedure or exam.
Data Aggregation: Even with standard EMR implementations, there can be tremendous variation in how certain types of data are captured. For example, data points needed for population health management may be captured in data fields and as unstructured text. Using NLP, healthcare organizations can now parse many different types of data from many sources. This enables access to data for risk-based contracts, such as social determinants of health like transportation, weight loss, food insecurity, and electricity.
Apply AI to Gain Quick Wins in Quality Improvement
With today’s technology, healthcare organizations
can move more quickly to take advantage of AI, especially ML and NLP— seeing
results in months rather than years. With modern data and analytics approaches,
organizations can proceed incrementally to identify questions, metrics or
patterns that deliver quick wins in clinical, financial and administrative
outcomes. At the same time, these achievements contribute to a successful
long-term strategy to continuously improve quality and outcomes while assuring appropriate
payment in today’s value-based care environment.
 Miliard, Mike, “Eric Topol: EHRs have ‘taken us astray,’ but AI could fix healthcare in a ‘meaningful and positive way.” Healthcare IT News, March 12, 2019.