AI for a more efficient healthcare

Automation through AI, robotics or 3D-printing will make healthcare more efficient and more sustainable. These new digital technologies will improve healthcare processes resulting in the earlier and more efficient treatment of patients. It will eventually shift the focus in medicine from treatment to prevention. Moreover, medical professionals will get the chance to move from repetitive, monotonous tasks to the challenging, creative assignments.

AI has certainly more revolutionary potential than simply optimizing processes: it can mine medical records or medical images in order to come up with previously unknown implications or signals; design treatment plans for cancer patients or create drugs from existing pills or re-use old drugs for new purposes. But imagine how much time you as a GP would have if the administrative process would be taken care of by an AI-powered system. Your only task would be to concentrate on the patient’s problem! Imagine how much time you as a GP could spare if healthcare chatbots and instant messaging health apps would give answers to simple patient questions, which do not necessarily need the intervention of a medical professional!

Artificial Decisions - Artificial Intelligence

She could have been a great doctor!

These were exactly the thoughts in my head when I was watching the movie Her for the second time. I was fascinated again about the scene in which the main character played by Joaquin Phoenix got his new, AI operating system and started working with it. I could not stop thinking about the ways I could use such an AI system in my life and how it actually could make me a better doctor.

Don’t get me wrong, I think empathy and great communication with patients can make a doctor better primarily, but as the amount of medical information out there is exponentially growing; as the time for dealing with patients and information is getting shorter, it is becoming humanly impossible to keep up with everything. If I could devote the time it takes now to deal with technology (inputting information, looking for papers, etc.) to patients, that would be a huge step towards becoming better.

Through the following 10 ways, AI could make me a better doctor.

1) Eradicate waiting time

You would think that waiting time is the exclusive “privilege” of patients and doctors do not have any free moment during their overpacked days. However, suboptimal health care processes not only result in patients sometimes waiting for hours in front of doctors’ offices but also medical professionals losing a lot of time every day waiting for something (a patient, a lab result, etc.). An AI system that makes my schedule as efficient as possible directing me to the next logical task would be a jackpot.

2) Prioritize my emails

The digital tsunami is upon us. Our inboxes are full of unread messages and it is an everyday challenge not to drown into the ocean of new letters. I deal with about 200 e-mails every single day. I try to teach Gmail how to mark an email important or categorize them automatically into social media messages, newsletters, and personal emails, it’s still a challenge. In Her, the AI system prioritized all the 3000 unread emails in a second. Imagine if we could streamline digital communication completely in line with our needs and if we could share and receive information more efficiently and more accurately without too much effort.

According to a recent report in the New Scientist, half a million people have professed their love for Alexa, Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant and more than 250,000 have proposed marriage to it. I have to say, I would probably do the same if it could organize my emails that way. (Also, if Scarlett Johansson were to be the voice of the assistant.)

Her - Science Fiction - Artificial Intelligence

3) Find me the information I need

I think I have mastered the skill of searching for information online using dozens of Google search operators and different kinds of search engines for different tasks, but it still takes time. What if an AI OS could answer my questions immediately by looking up the answer online?

More and more intelligent personal assistants, such as Siri on iOS or Alexa for Amazon lead us into the future, and there will be soon highly capable, specialized AI-powered chatbots also in the field of healthcare. Bots like HealthTap or Your.Md already aim to help patients find a solution to the most common symptoms through AI. Safedrugbot embodies a chat messaging service that offers assistant-like support to health professionals, doctors who need appropriate information about the use of drugs during breastfeeding.

4) Keep me up-to-date

There is too much information out there. Without an appropriate compass, we are lost in the jungle of data. It is even more important to find the most accurate, relevant and up-to-date information when it comes to such a sensitive area as healthcare. That’s why I started Webicina, which collects the latest news from the best, most reliable sources into one, easily manageable magazine.

On Pubmed, there are 23 million papers. If I could read 3-4 studies of my field of interest per week, I could not finish it in a lifetime and meanwhile millions of new studies would come out. I need an AI to process the pile of information for me and show me the most relevant papers – and we will get there soon. IBM Watson can already process a million pages in seconds. This remarkable speed has led to trying Watson in oncology centers to see how helpful it is in making treatment decisions in cancer care.

IBM Watson_Artificial Intelligence

5) Work when I don’t

I can fulfill my online tasks (emails, reading papers, searching for information) when I use my PC or laptop, and I can do most of these on my smartphone. When I don’t use any of these, I obviously cannot work. An AI system could work on these when I don’t have any device in hand.

Imagine that you are playing tennis or doing the dishes at home when an important message comes in. With the help of an AI, you could respond to your boss without the need to touch any devices – a toned down version of Joaquin Phoenix’s AI, that arranged the whole publishing process of his book without the need for him to lift a finger.

6) Help me make hard decisions rational

A doctor must face a series of hard decisions every day. The best we can do is to make those decisions as informed as possible. I can ask people whose opinion I value, but basically, that’s it. Unfortunately, you would search the world wide web in vain for certain answers.

But AI-powered algorithms could help in the future. For example, IBM Watson launched its special program for oncologists – and I interviewed one of the professors working with it – which is able to provide clinicians evidence-based treatment options. Watson for Oncology has an advanced ability to analyze the meaning and context of structured and unstructured data in clinical notes and reports that may be critical to selecting a treatment pathway. So, AI is not making the decision per se but offers you the most rational options.

AI options - Artificial Intelligence

7) Help patients with urgent matters reach me

A doctor has a lot of calls, in-person questions, emails and even messages from social media channels on a daily basis. In this noise of information, not every urgent matter can reach you. What if an AI OS could select the crucial ones out of the mess and direct your attention to it when it’s actually needed.

Moreover, if you look at the patient side, you will see how long is the route from recognizing symptoms at home until reaching out to a specialist. For example, in the Hungarian county of Kaposvár, the average time from the discovery of a cancerous disease until the actual medical consultation about the treatment plan was 54 days. This alarming number has been drastically reduced to 21 days with the help of a special software and by optimizing patient management practices since November 2015. Imagine, though, what earthquake-like changes AI could bring into patient management if the usage of a simpler process management tool and follow-up system could halve the waiting time!

8) Help me improve over time

People, even those who work on becoming better at their job, make the same mistakes over and over again. What if by discussing every challenging task or decision with an AI, I could improve the quality of my job. Just look at the following:

97% of healthcare invoices in the Netherlands are digital containing data regarding the treatment, the doctor, and the hospital. These invoices could be easily retrieved. A local company, Zorgprisma Publiek analyzes the invoices and uses IBM Watson in the cloud to mine the data. They can tell if a doctor, clinic or hospital makes mistakes repetitively in treating a certain type of condition in order to help them improve and avoid unnecessary hospitalizations of patients.

Zorgprisma - Artificial Intelligence

9) Help me collaborate more

Sometimes I’m wondering how many researchers, doctors, nurses or patients are thinking about the same issues in healthcare as I do. At those times, I imagine that I have an AI by my side, which helps me find the most potential collaborators and invite them to work together with me for a better future.

Clinical and research collaborations are crucial to find the best solutions for arising problems, however, more often than not, it is difficult to find the most relevant partners. There are already efforts to change this. For example, in the field of clinical trials, TrialReach tries to bridge the gap between patients and researchers who are developing new drugs. If more patients have a chance to participate in trials, they might become more engaged with potential treatments or even be able to access new treatments before they become FDA approved and freely available.

10) Do administrative work

Quite an essential percentage of an average day of a doctor is spent with administrative stuff. An AI could learn how to do it properly and do it better than me by time. This is the area where AI could impact healthcare the most. Repetitive, monotonous tasks without the slightest need for creativity could and should be done by artificial intelligence. There are already great examples leaning towards this trend.

IBM launched another algorithm called Medical Sieve. It is an ambitious long-term exploratory project to build a next generation “cognitive assistant” with analytical, reasoning capabilities and a wide range of clinical knowledge. Medical Sieve is qualified to assist in clinical decision making in radiology and cardiology.

Many fear that algorithms and artificial intelligence will take the jobs of medical professionals in the future. I highly doubt it. Instead of replacing doctors, AI will augment them and make them better at their jobs. Without the day-to-day treadmill of administrative and repetitive tasks, the medical community could again turn to its most important task with full attention: healing.

Subscribe to

The Medical Futurist℠ Newsletter

  • News shaping the future of healthcare
  • Advice on taking charge of your health
  • Reviews of the latest health technology