Will AI Impact Our Personal Healthcare?
As a category, Artificial Intelligence commands a feverish level of interest from venture capital — a trend that is projected to accelerate in the coming years. Through mid-April 2021, VCs invested nearly $12B in AI companies across 442 deals. The headline-grabbing Microsoft — Nuance deal only further solidified the staying power and potential of AI in healthcare.
Simply put, AI in healthcare is here to stay.
Macro-level trends in the healthcare industry are driving the need and urgency for cost-cutting and treatment-enhancing AI breakthroughs. For example, some researchers suggest there is a looming shortage of physicians on the horizon — a shortfall whose magnitude could reach between 54,000 to 139,000 doctors by the year 2033. Patients are likely to have a more difficult time finding a provider over the next decade. Providers will need to optimize their time and therapeutic efforts to manage this shortfall.
The shortage in physicians is also likely to exacerbate issues pertaining to medical error. Previous research suggests that medical error accounts for as many as 250,000 deaths in the US annually — a figure that has been challenged and could actually be closer to 22,000 preventable inpatient deaths per year. Regardless of the various estimates, reducing error — particularly preventable error — is of paramount importance today and will continue to be so going forward.
But amid the excitement around the need, the potential, and the funding for AI in healthcare, a fundamental question remains: are patients comfortable being treated using AI-driven solutions?
Many patients are reluctant to adopt an AI-based solution. This is driven, perhaps, by a belief that AI solutions are inferior or out of a desire to maintain the human element of the doctor-patient relationship which is so important and fundamental to the human experience of treatment and healing disease.
In reality though, most patients have already been impacted by AI in healthcare in mostly unseen, though profound ways. A prime example of this impact was the role AI played in the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines which impacted tens of millions of patients who desired quick access to new technology.
AI is being used to address several areas in the healthcare value chain already and its effects are flowing to patients, even though we largely don’t see the effects in real time. As a result, the question before us is less around whether or not AI should have a role in healthcare but, rather, what role should it play at various junctures of the healthcare value chain.
Healthcare AI transformation is already underway in sectors of the industry that are predominantly repetitive and not directly related to treating patients. This transformation will continue to accelerate and will touch parts of the value chain including drug development, clinical decision making, as well as diagnosis and treatment solutions that unlock the power of genetic data. As time goes by, AI could very well become an integrated, indispensable infrastructure of the entire healthcare value chain. Effects felt by patients, providers and payors at the periphery today will expand into the clinic and the treatments that could save lives in the future.
As AI algorithms become capable of computing, presenting, or deciding increasingly sophisticated courses of action, what role will human decision-making take in relation to these advancing technologies? As patients become more aware of and more comfortable with the expanding role that AI plays in their health and wellness, how will this impact reverberate through our healthcare system?
I recently asked a founder in the AI diagnostics space a question that perhaps many practitioners ask regarding this topic:
“Will AI someday replace doctors?”
“No,” he responded, “but the doctor who uses AI will replace the ones that do not.”