Jan 19 2018

ONC Looks to Shape the Future of Healthcare AI

The report lays the foundation for AI’s continued growth in healthcare, but exposes the need for high-quality digital data.

Buzz can often overshadow the actual tangible impact of new technologies. Artificial intelligence isn’t immune to the hype, of course, as the tech’s great promise in digesting hordes of existing patient data to aid in clinical decision-making can seem overblown.

But a new report by federal advisory group JASON and commissioned by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) — part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — seeks to cut through the hype and has found some positive indications that the technology has some very real applications that could shape the future of healthcare for the better.

“Most importantly, the report indicates that the use of artificial intelligence in health and healthcare is promising — and doable,” ONC officials wrote in a HealthITBuzz blog post addressing the results of the study.

AI in healthcare is already poised for explosive growth in coming years as providers and researchers begin to explore the use of the technology in everything from radiology to senior care to public health. In fact, a recent report by Accenture predicts that by 2021 the AI market in healthcare will reach $6.6 billion, a growth rate of nearly 40 percent. Moreover, the technology can potentially create $150 million in annual savings for the healthcare economy by 2026 through efficiencies in cybersecurity, fraud detection, workflow assistance and more.

The market itself is bolstered by companies such as IBM, who’s AI platform Watson is already at work in several hospitals to research and pilot ways the tech can be integrated into real healthcare delivery models and clinical decision-making.

The JASON report attributes the rise of AI to three things: Frustration with the existing — or legacy — medical systems, the ubiquity of connected devices and a rising comfort with virtual assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa.

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Challenges and Next Steps for Healthcare AI

It’s not all coming up roses for AI, however. As with any new technology, the ONC stresses that there are also risks and challenges ahead for AI, particularly regarding the integrity of the health data that it relies on to create and inform decision-making.

“What is clear from the report is that without access to high quality, reliable data, the promise of AI will not be realized: the increased availability of digital health data could allow for the use of AI in clinical practice, though issues regarding the quality of existing data must be addressed. Though many of us already use our smartphones and other smart devices in our daily lives, through the availability of open application programming interfaces (APIs), there are still concerns about how health data can be integrated into new tools, as well as equitable distribution of these potentially powerful tools,” ONC officials write on the agency’s HealthITBuzz blog.

So how will the ONC move forward to ensure this robust digital data is available to form solid foundations for the growth of AI in healthcare? The report lays out next steps:

  • Capturing smartphone data: Wearables and apps are changing the way that people monitor their health, and making health indicators more avidly available in real-time via smartphones. Integrating the data generated by these devices can support AI applications and growth, the ONC points out in its blog post.
  • Integrating social and environmental data: It’s not just vitals that are indicators of health, and in fact, for a city dweller in the U.S., ZIP code is one of the best predictors of life span. “We need to foster capabilities to capture and integrate data on environmental exposures and social behaviors in AI health applications, as health outcomes are very affected by these factors,” the ONC notes.
  • Supporting AI competitions: Competitions are a great way to foster development of new applications or platforms for AI. “We should consider additional support for AI competitions, which have already shown promise, to further advance data generation and AI development,” the ONC says.

As it moves ahead with these and other initiatives that aim to shape the scope of AI in healthcare, the ONC says it will work closely with other HHS agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “to define and identify possible opportunities for the use of AI in their efforts to improve biomedical research, medical care and outcomes, including work related to the advent of precision medicine.”

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