The Possibilities of AI in Healthcare

The digitization of modern society has extended into all aspects of daily life, with the healthcare industry being no stranger to this technological transformation. Being fueled by the virtual nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare has seen major developments that could alter the standard doctor-to-patient relationship.

Telehealth technologies, for instance, reached over 100x pre-pandemic levels, and the use of these electronic services rose over 2,600% between February and April 2020 (California Health Care Foundation). According to the California Health Care Foundation, while only "1% of Medicare primary care visits were conducted via telehealth in the week preceding the coronavirus pandemic,” telehealth visits now accounted for over “100 services per 1,000 Medicaid and CHIP enrollees'' after the onset of the pandemic.

Most fascinating (and probably most controversial), however, is the idea of implementing Artificial Intelligence into modern day healthcare. In an interview conducted by the California Health Care Foundation, the around 200 health care thought leaders that were surveyed generally agreed that the purpose of AI won’t be to replace physical doctors; instead, when utilized in tandem with human care, it could transform the speed and efficiency of the entire industry. One interviewee even said, “At some point, patients will contact [AI-enabled apps] first, and eventually [providers will have] AI sitting over our shoulders suggesting diagnoses.”

And when we look at the endless possibilities that come with AI, the hype that surrounds it makes sense. Virtual patients and simulations are being used in medical training to build up soft skills and communication abilities within doctors (Virti, a company founded by trauma and orthopedic surgeon Alex Young). Machine learning can be used to sort through and evaluate mountains of patient data and records, which can consequently lead to quicker diagnosis and treatment. The quicker detection of diseases — specifically, cancer cases — can also be achieved through utilizing AI to review and translate mammograms (PwC). The American Cancer Society reports that “a high proportion of mammograms yield false results”; the hope is that AI will be able to decrease human error by combing through reports more accurately and still at a faster pace. Beyond the benefits in the diagnosis stage, artificial intelligence could even be implemented during the actual treatment process. According to PwC, “Robots have been used in medicine for more than 30 years. They range from simple laboratory robots to highly complex surgical robots that can either aid a human surgeon or execute operations by themselves.” With the rate of technological advancements, the possibilities are truly boundless, harboring the potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare by leaps and bounds.

Nevertheless, opinions on AI are mixed, and its implementation into the healthcare world comes with its share of concerns. First off, the actual accuracy of AI could be considered questionable. In 2021, a study published in the British Medical Journal “found that 94% of AI systems that scanned for signs of breast cancer were less accurate than a human radiologist” (The Daily Dot). What’s more, according to Carol Horowitz, the founder of the Mt. Sinai Institute of Health and Equity Research, inaccuracies in AI measurements and reports could lead — and have led — to dangerous impacts on an individual’s health (Broadband Breakfast). She references an example from March 2020 in which an AI technology that was “meant to allow individuals to self-monitor their own oxygen levels as a precautionary method to the COVID-19 pandemic […] led to inaccurate pulse readings for those with darker skin […] resulting in delayed treatment for many in need” (Broadband Breakfast). This also brings up the serious concern of whether or not AI tech could exacerbate existing inequalities within the healthcare system. Thinking back to how artificial intelligence has been utilized to train doctors, Agnes Arnold-Forster writes in The Daily Dot that “Emotion recognition systems are known to flag the speech styles of women, and particularly Black women, differently from those of men.” Thus, artificial intelligence does not exclude itself from prejudices, and its implementation into healthcare poses concerns for those who have constantly been let down and discriminated against by the system.

The concept of AI is fascinating and complex. The benefits it proposes are incredible, but the downfalls it risks are distressing. What are your thoughts on the implementation of AI in healthcare? Do you believe its pros outweigh the cons? Or do you believe we might be heading down the wrong path? Let us know in the comments!