Physicians could have new assistants in the future: artificial intelligence (AI). AI could be capable of screening patients, offering diagnoses, and suggesting optimal treatments as well as triaging patient inquiries and processing patient claims.
AI is a technology that mimics human thought processes by finding patterns, then using what it finds to make decisions. AI is also defined by its ability to learn as it processes more data over time.
AI, in fact, promises to impact nearly every aspect of primary care, according to health IT experts.
Those knowledgeable about the technology say AI-enabled computer applications will collect and synthesize disparate patient data and present it to physicians alongside insights into the patient’s medical needs.
It will help physicians better identify patients who need more attention and provide personalized recommendations on what protocols would work best for each individual. And AI will even help diagnose patients by analyzing quantities of information that would be too difficult for any human to assess.
“There are very high hopes for AI to improve the lives of physicians as well as the lives of their patients,” says Anil Jain, MD, FACP, an internist who is vice president and chief health information officer for Watson Health at IBM in Armonk, N.Y. “As a primary care doctor, I’m encouraged by this because it could make my life easier.”
AI is gearing up
Several factors have come together recently to support the quickening pace of AI developments for healthcare and, more specifically, for primary care.
Leading the way is the amount of healthcare data collected in recent years. The high level of computing power now available to process large data sets, the ubiquity of computer systems and EHRs, and overall advances in computer technologies also have fueled AI’s advancements in medicine, according to experts.
Still, AI in healthcare is in its early stages, says Teresa Zayas Cabán, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information, which funded the 2017 report “Artificial Intelligence for Health and Health Care.”
Zayas Cabán says technology vendors, medical institutions, and other health organizations are working to identify the tasks that would be suitable for AI to handle and bring together the right data needed to develop, or “train,” AI to handle those tasks.
Even though AI is in its early stages, experts say it’s poised to impact both clinical care and administrative tasks in primary care practices and thereby allow more physicians to practice to the top of their license, says Erik Louie, MD, chief medical officer at HealthBox, a healthcare innovation consulting and fund management services firm in Chicago, Ill.
Louie and others envision a variety of different uses. AI could screen patient data from physician notes, tests results, and other data sources and combine that with information from protocols, clinical studies, and recommendations to identify a patient’s condition, which follow-up tests are needed, and which medicines work best. In other words, AI will be significantly more sophisticated versions of today’s clinical decision tools.
Meanwhile, AI could collect and analyze patient data as it is generated from multiple sources, including fitness trackers and at-home monitors, thus aiding physicians as they monitor patients’ health in ways that time and resources without AI don’t allow. “AI lets us look at data and help think about the patient’s total picture. In the future, it will help [physicians] to get insights, rather than just data,” Jain says.
Moreover, AI is expected to enable primary care physicians to engage in precision medicine, where care protocols culled from large-scale studies are tailored to the individual patient based on analysis of his or her own conditions, genetic makeup, and even social circumstances. It’s a level of analysis that no human could do, Jain says.
Experts predict physicians will use AI to help them more accurately identify patients who need specialty care. They also expect physicians will use it to better manage patients by directing those who need higher-level care to specialists while being able to more accurately monitor at-risk patients in their own practice—a critical benefit as the U.S. healthcare system moves more patients to value-based care models.
As an example, Louie points to an AI application to screen for diabetic retinopathy as a tool for primary care physicians. The federal Food and Drug Administration in April approved IDx, a diagnostic system that uses AI to detect diabetic retinopathy. IDx does not require a specialist to interpret the images or results, making it the first such system cleared for use by the FDA.
Physicians and their care teams, even those not normally involved in eye care, can use the technology to screen their patients for the condition during routine office visits.
In addition, physicians soon could have AI take their notes, analyze their discussions with patients, and enter required information directly into their EHR systems. Physicians might even use AI to analyze indicators that they can’t, such as patients’ voices to detect anxiety or depression.
IT forecasters predict that this emerging technology will also improve many front- and back-office functions. For example, AI will guide patients through intake forms that it tailors based on responses, and AI will analyze patient records to determine how to most accurately submit claims for timely reimbursements with less chance of denials.
Numerous benefits expected
AI has the potential to positively impact healthcare in several ways, all delivering real returns, health IT leaders say. Consider, for instance, that research shows that clinicians have an average of 15 minutes with each patient but spend nine of those minutes entering data in their EHRs, says R “Ray” Wang, MPH, principal analyst and founder of Constellation Research Inc. of Monta Vista, Calif. Imagine, he says, how much more a clinician can discuss with the patient if AI takes over those mundane data-entry tasks.
Wang also notes that AI can access and learn new research at a volume and speed impossible for any human to match. That means a physician using AI can expand his or her breadth of knowledge and ensure his or her decisions draw on the latest research as well.
“AI will be going through information—the patient’s genome, history, current medications, all the things the physician doesn’t have the time to be on top of and information that might not even be accessible [to him or her],” says John Huffman, chief scientific officer of data science and AI at Philips, a Dutch company whose portfolio of integrated health tech products includes AI-enabled platforms.