Apr 27 2017

Is AI for Healthcare Going Too Far?

Jeremy Corbett, chief health officer for Envolve PeopleCare, explains why health technology should augment — not replace — human intervention.

Your toddler’s temperature is 104 degrees; you check WebMD and decide to wait it out with a dose of Tylenol. You’re training for a half marathon; an app tees up a weekly workout schedule and tracks your training and diet. You’re a diabetic struggling to manage your disease; if Amazon has its way, you’ll just ask Alexa.

Conventional wisdom suggests artificial intelligence will supplant much of what healthcare providers do, including diagnosing medical conditions and making treatment recommendations. WebMD’s vast health information library is now accessible through Amazon’s Alexa. Microsoft’s Healthcare NExT initiative includes the deployment of chatbots to help patients self-triage. Estimates suggest the market for healthcare AI could balloon from $600 million in 2016 to $6 billion by 2021.

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Market Projections Matter, but So Do Long-Term Adoption Rates

Technology-only solutions will ultimately fail. Replacing rather than augmenting human interaction goes too far, as healthcare has always been — and will continue to be — intensely personal.

When a doctor makes a cancer diagnosis, it’s a human being who shoulders the burden. When a surgeon discusses an invasive procedure, it’s a person’s knee he’s reconstructing. The common denominator in healthcare is always people. Data and technology must be used to expand the reach, impact and success rate of healthcare providers’ capacity, rather than render it unnecessary.

We already see signs that when you take the human element out of something as personal and intimate as medicine, you will find very few long-term adopters. While the market for wearables soars — and with it the prospect of AI intervention — more than 50 percent of people who buy one abandon it within six months.

Think healthcare AI is the panacea for containing unsustainable, rising healthcare costs? Think again. Telemedicine has long been touted for its ability to drive down medical spending. But we see the exact opposite occurring, at least in the ways it’s currently being deployed by doctors’ offices, hospitals and insurers.

A recent study in the Journal of Health Affairs suggests virtual visits actually increase medical use. A mere 12 percent of telemedicine visits replaced an in-person provider visit, according to the study, while 88 percent represented patients who otherwise would not have sought medical care. It stands to reason that if you reduce the burden of access to healthcare, people will access more of it, not less.

People crave real-time access to care, but aren’t willing to sacrifice the relational component of healthcare to get it. Technology-enabled healthcare solutions must augment, not replace, human intervention.  

AI Can Contain Costs While Expanding the Reach and Impact

The best healthcare outcomes will come from leveraging technology like never before to improve the efficiency and efficacy of doctors, and perhaps more importantly, lower-cost healthcare providers, such as nurses and health coaches. AI developments that show promise analyze Big Data, monitor health remotely and intervene proactively only when necessary.

AI holds the most promise in helping manage diseases such as diabetes and hypertension across entire populations. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than half of all adults have one or more chronic health condition, and their treatment accounts for 86 percent of all healthcare spending. Diabetes alone affects 37 percent of Americans and accounts for $1 out of every $5 in healthcare costs.

The healthcare industry is in crisis: These costs continue to rise while the pool of healthcare resources shrinks. Healthcare providers must do more with less. It's incumbent on those of us tasked with deploying true and total population health solutions to leverage technology to get the most and best possible work from the human capital and experience available.

This is the role of AI in healthcare: Make the healthcare provider’s job easier, make the patient experience seamless and make the whole experience as relational as possible. Technology, then, is simply the bridge that connects human beings to each other for the greatest impact at the lowest cost.

The companies that win in this new reality will be those that place individual patients at the center of the circle, prioritize quality, identify objective outcomes as success measures and leverage technology for human connections rather than relying exclusively on technology to address distinctly human conditions.