Don't fear the robot: Artificial intelligence could be a game-changer for physicians and their patients

Automation might make some physicians nervous. But even as the debate rages over whether machines could or should "replace" doctors, artificial intelligence continues to gain ground in the healthcare industry.

AI could change the way medicine is practiced and ultimately free up doctors to spend more time with their patients, said Paul Balagot, chief experience officer at Precisioneffect, a California healthcare marketing and advertising agency that focuses on scientific advances in some of its campaigns.

"It’s an ever-evolving field. There’s a huge opportunity for artificial intelligence to transform healthcare.” 

Paul Balagot
Paul Balagot

While the most dramatic possibility is the development of robotic doctors powered by AI, there are many ways AI can help, rather than threaten, doctors.

Companies such as Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, IBM, Microsoft and others are investing in the healthcare AI space and their advances in innovation and technology aim to help with tasks from patient charting to decision support.

Ironically, AI could even help fix some of the problems created by technology that can lead to poor physician satisfaction, including time spent on electronic health records, payer requirements and government regulations.

“I think AI is uniquely positioned to help streamline that business side,” Balagot said. AI could eliminate some of that administrative burden by finding ways to establish prior authorizations, make work flow more efficient, take patients’ initial medical histories and help doctors mine data.

There are 8,000 new research papers published each day, and AI can mine that information faster than any individual physician ever could, he says. If doctors are better informed that will lead to better patient care. So, for instance, an oncologist could find information on new viable treatment plans that might work for a specific cancer patient that are not among the usual options.

AI could then help the physician get access to that therapy and help navigate the payer landscape to ensure the treatment is covered by the patient’s insurance. Thus, AI could speed up the adoption curve for new therapies, he said.

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The biggest enhancement AI has to offer is around patient support. With its speed, AI holds the potential to allow doctors to discover other, and possibly better, treatment options for patients.

Increased use of AI in healthcare would improve both decision-making and clinicians' ability to determine the best possible course of action, but the goal of such advances is not to replace human caregivers.

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Envision a future where voice-activated technology and software-based dictation services help physicians cut the time they spend on EHRs.

And the future is now. An AI platform that is widely recognized by the public is IBM Watson, which is being used by healthcare systems including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

For instance, Kettering said its clinicians and analysts are partnering with IBM to train Watson Oncology to interpret cancer patients’ clinical information and identify individualized, evidence-based treatment options that leverage its specialists’ decades of experience and research.