Sherlock Holmes famously captured the popular imagination with his uncanny ability to make wild, but accurate, leaps of logic to solve mysteries. By observing Dr. Watson’s suit jacket sleeve, upon their first encounter, he was able to deduce that Watson was in fact a surgeon, in the British Army, and had recently returned from Afghanistan, where he had sustained an injury.
When he slowed down to explain his reasoning, it was easy to follow; what made his deductions impressive was how quickly he would skip from observation to conclusion. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but it seems to me that chatbots are poised to take over much of modern healthcare.
As more data is moved to portals through EHRs and digital documentation, there is increased patient interest in and demand for other digital and remote encounters and health resources. This, along with improving technology and competitive solutions, is helping increase adoption of telehealth. So, patient portals lead to increased telehealth adoption.
Finally, although part of the premise and value of telehealth is enabling face-to-face encounters between caregivers and patients without respect to geography, hospital waiting rooms, or other physical barriers, it changes certain expectations. Like all mobile and web-based services, telehealth feeds a consumer mindset that expects everything on-demand, all but instantaneously, and highly customized at that.
While portable patient records facilitated by EHRs and interoperability can help this, customization and on-demand healthcare doesn’t just put pressure on records and data. Patients want fast and personalized answers. As customer service centers, tech support, banks and virtually every other consumer-facing industry has learned, a lot of the on-demand load can be pushed onto increasingly sophisticated chatbots.
So, telehealth leads to growing expectations for on-demand clinical encounters and chat, which is provided by chatbots.
The Case for Chatbots
Retail has previewed much for healthcare: See how customer service upgrades have turned everyone into “The Most Important Person Here” wherever they go, in person or online. Consumers demand personalization, expedition, authenticity and they want it all exactly when and where they want it. And now, see how AI is not yet taking over the world, but is making FAQs and other routine customer service interactions painless for those answering, and interactive enough for those asking.
Retail is even making inroads to healthcare, as consumer-facing devices promise to measure and track all manner of health metrics. Statistics-loving sports fans witness the increasing digitization and quantification of athletes, games, injuries and training, and they want a similar level of insight and precision for their own care. Mobile technology is redefining and disrupting even the oldest and most stable of markets and industries, bit by literal bit.
So how long until the dry, repetitive questions doctors routinely must answer in check-ups and physicals are ethically and effectively offloaded onto chatbots programmed to triage and educate patients without wasting valuable human resources? How long until using telehealth to keep nonemergency patients out of the emergency room merges with using chat and AI — the basic recipe for chatbots — to keep healthy but curious or concerned patients from wasting time and money going through full encounters simply to get their general questions answered?
It doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to realize the benefits of AI at scale. Google has all but taken over the modern world by connecting searchers with answers to their questions; Wikipedia has all but bankrupted the encyclopedia industry with free, accessible, general knowledge. In a world where health literacy is so lacking in the majority of the population, some interactive resources could go a long way to chipping away at ER overuse and healthcare overconsumption, just by giving people an alternative to seeing the doctor.
Automation of Care, Automation of Crime
As quickly as potential benefits can scale, very real risks and both moral and financial hazards scale even quicker.
The growing popularity and implementation of chatbots has given hackers and cybercriminals a new way to scam, defraud, and generally abuse unwitting consumers. Sometimes that means hackers take over a company’s chat system with their own bot and solicit data. Sometimes fraudsters attract visitors with a spoof website, then use a bot to similarly extract volunteered data at scale from misled visitors. However it is done, it scales almost as well as a more conventional data breach, and can be harder to detect or track.
Is there an unspoken fear among caregivers that the subtext of all this digital disruption is a devaluation of the human element?
In countless industries, workers and analysts alike watch the slow march of technology and innovation and see as inevitable the takeover of human tasks by robots, AI, or other smart systems. We watched as the threat of outsourcing transformed into a reality of automation in industrial sectors, saw drones take on countless new roles in the military and in commerce, and now we hear about how driverless cars, self-checkout kiosks, and even robotic cashiers in restaurants are all waiting in the wings to dive in and displace even more formerly human occupations.
And looking at how EHRs — by virtue of their cumbersome workflows alone, not to mention all the documentation and growing emphasis on analytics and records-sharing–are taking flack for burnout and frustration in hospitals across the country, it hardly seems a reach to suggest that maybe America’s caregivers are feeling not just burdened by technology, but threatened.
Digital records are already changing what doctors and nurses do, how they work, and what is expected of them — it must surely be only a matter of time before their roles start getting handed over to the robots and supercomputers … right?
Change, Not Replacement
While some jobs or roles may face elimination through automation, the more common effect is transformation. In healthcare, that may mean that for many their title is the same — perhaps even the education and certification standards that go along with it–but their actual functions and roles in context will be different.
We see this already with respect to EHRs. The early, primitive documentation workflows and reporting obligations have drawn ire from clinicians who see their autonomy under attack by digital bureaucracy. But this is naturally destined for correction; medicine has advanced through trial and error for centuries, and the 21st century is no different.
All of these trends point to the medical lab as a newly central component of the modern care center, treatment plan, and information hub. The demands all these new technologies and applications put on laboratory professionals requires them to do more learning, adapting, and leading than ever before, especially to integrate the latest and greatest devices and tests available.
Simply put, machines are still fallible, and require assistance in providing critical context, to supplement their ability to accurately read, diagnose, and self-regulate to ensure accuracy and consistency, not to mention proper application in the clinical setting.
Since 2011, more than $870 million have been invested in more than 65 healthcare artificial intelligence (AI) startups. These startups concentrate on various areas, from nursing to drug discoveries, where AI’s potential can be put to best use. This is where the world’s heading towards and the future of healthcare lies.
The roots of AI may have been from some science fiction storytellers, but now, the reality is that AI plays a major role in our everyday life. Beginning with the IBM Watson supercomputer defeating the longtime Jeopardy champion, Ken Jennings, the world started taking notice about what artificial intelligence can do.
With Google and IBM making tremendous progress with their AI initiatives and the other tech giants (Like Apple, Dell, Facebook) trying to catch up, it makes us wonder what will happen when one day we have robots running around doing our everyday chores.
But, the main question should be what will happen when AI does fully breach our day to day lives: Will we embrace this reality and let robots take us over? And do we really need or is it desirable to have self-driving cars and artificial intelligence? Should computers acquire enough data and knowledge to replace our existing doctors?
Maybe we do or maybe we don’t, but let’s stop before we get ahead of ourselves.
AI should not be perceived as “artificial intelligence” but rather as “augmented intelligence.” It has the potential to process data and make cognitive decisions, which an average human can take many months to process. AI has truly opened numerous opportunities in the field of healthcare, which was humanly impossible just a few years ago.
Getting into the facts, the main advantage AI has over a normal human being is the ability to process a gazillion data points within seconds.
So let’s imagine a patient walks in with a flu – even to diagnose and treat this common illness with the right medication can take a while. There are some cases where the patients don’t even react to the medication. These are common scenarios, as each body reacts differently to different medicines leading to an increased treatment time. Whereas, if the diagnosis is powered with an AI backed system to help, doctor’s will be armed with all the right data and can diagnose and prescribe the right medication within minutes.
How’s that for a game changer?
Yes, AI is the perfect medical assistant to healthcare professionals.Through an iPad based electronic medical record, even the patient genome studies could be integrated into their electronic medical reports. Armed with this data, AI has enough information to make a better analysis and provide accurate treatment plans based on the patient’s medical history, genetic conditions and other medications they are taking for other illnesses.