- Artificial intelligence is quickly taking root in the healthcare ecosystem by supporting better clinical and financial decision-making.
Providers and executives now have access to much more actionable insights derived from natural language processing (NLP), deep learning, neural networks, and other advanced machine learning techniques.
These strategies aren’t just revolutionizing the way providers make decisions. Artificial intelligence is also fundamentally altering the way patients interact with their caregivers, turning a more-or-less passive relationship into an opportunity to make informed choices about when, where, and how to seek out services.
As a result, the role of the patient is being completely rewritten, says Gregg Meyer, MD, MSc, Chief Clinical Officer at Partners HealthCare, and the consumer experience must follow suit.
“Patients are becoming wiser consumers, and much more empowered consumers,” explained Meyer to HealthITAnalytics.com ahead of the Partners World Medical Innovation Forum in Boston on April 8-10, 2019.
“Consumers are paying drastically more for their care out of their pockets, and that is creating a much stronger pressure to get their money’s worth, in their opinion.”
“At the same time, AI is enabling them to optimize the things they couldn’t in the past, such as choosing care based on quality or making decisions about price,” he continued. “As a result, they have much more control over the experiences they have, and that means the health system is also under pressure to adapt to what patients want.”
The traditional paradigm of forcing a patient to squeeze an appointment into a packed clinical calendar, leave their job or find a babysitter, and relinquish half their day to the waiting room before being seen by a physician for five minutes is no longer sustainable.
In the era of chatbots that can triage patients in minutes and algorithms that display price lists at local facilities on demand, said Meyer, providers have to do better to meet modern expectations of convenience and self-service – something that consumers routinely enjoy in other industries but haven’t yet found in healthcare.
“Think about how much we have embraced automated, streamlined digital experiences in other areas of our lives. When was the last time I interacted with a bank teller? Or a travel agent? I can’t remember, because those industries have created experiences that make it more convenient for me to do the admin myself,” he said.
“The consumer gets control, convenience, and an immediate responsiveness that we don’t typically find in healthcare. If we are going to harness what has been proven successful in other sectors, we need to embrace AI.”
Meyer recognized that the transition to a more patient-driven industry is bound to bring some growing pains, most of which are likely to affect physicians as the health system reorients itself to a patient-centered point of view.
Many providers remain wary about integrating artificial intelligence into the care process, either because they don’t yet trust AI to perform correctly or because they fear being made redundant.
“AI is certainly going to make many of us uncomfortable, because it will require delivering care differently,” Meyer acknowledged. “And there are certainly issues that we need to address as we bring AI into the care process. But in the long run, it’s going to be great for patients, and it could be great for providers who embrace it, too.”
“There are more and more opportunities to use AI to provide convenience and efficiency to the patient and to the provider at the same time.”
Using AI to reduce the time devoted to administrative tasks such as documentation and coding can benefit providers and patients simultaneously, he explained.
“I don’t go home at the end of the day saying, ‘Wow, I had a really great time doing my coding today – I made a real difference in someone’s life by doing that,’” he said. “If I could outsource that to a bot or an algorithm, I’d be a much happier doctor with much more cognitive and emotional bandwidth to tackle the complex patient-facing aspects of my job.”
“I don’t view a net-benefit like that as a threat. I view it as something that can free me up to deliver better care to people, so my patient gets my full attention and I can exercise my skills at the highest level.”
Routine chronic disease management and preventive care processes are also likely to be among the first targets of automation, and offer a low-risk way to free up time to focus on more complex issues, he continued.
“A patient doesn’t need to come in just to have their blood pressure checked anymore,” asserted Meyer.
“There’s simply no reason they can’t take their pressure at home with one of the high-quality devices available to them, and no reason we can’t use an app with an AI algorithm that suggests adjustments to their medication based on the results.”
Leveraging the power of advanced analytics in such a manner could help to ensure that patients are matched with the right therapies much more quickly and efficiently than current processes allow.
“If you come in with high lipids, it could take between twelve and eighteen months to find the right combination of diet, exercise, and medication that effectively gets your values under control,” he said, drawing on his experience as a primary care provider.
“But imagine being able to use an algorithm that synthesizes your clinical history, assesses your genetic likelihood of responding to a range of potential therapies, and models predicted outcomes so that you can get on an effective therapy in a matter of weeks instead of months at a much lower cost. That isn’t fantasy – that is where AI is heading, and it’s getting there very quickly.”
Meyer predicted that it will take less than two years for similar AI-driven experiences to be available for a wide range of common conditions.
“I can see why some people might feel threatened by that, because it’s changing the relationship the provider has with the patient,” he said. “It does require giving up a little bit of perceived control over that relationship.”
“But as a physician, you can’t hold on to everything and then complain that you’re overworked and that you’re not operating at the top of your license. Something’s got to give. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”
At the same time, Meyer said, he doesn’t want to see clinicians “parking their brains” and letting artificial intelligence completely take over the patient experience.
“There will always be a need for human clinicians to oversee decision-making and ensure that AI is doing the right thing for our patients,” he stressed.
“A patient might think it’s really great that an app prescribed them an antibiotic for their sore throat, for example, but if we are not very vigilant about the parameters we’re setting for those prescriptions to make sure antibiotics are truly warranted, we could be doing more harm than good in terms of antibiotic stewardship.”
“We have to be actively engaged as clinicians and ensure that the technology we’re using is consistent with evidence-based guidelines – guidelines that are changing all the time. We need to be mindful about using AI as an augmentation to human cognition, not as a short cut. Technology still requires real, sustained engagement from the provider community, and that isn’t going to change.”
What consumers are truly seeking in their updated experiences is the optimal blend of data-driven convenience with human empathy and involvement, Meyer emphasized.
“The single most important thing that physicians and medical students need to do is retain their humanity,” he said. “Patients will always need a physician who doesn’t just know what’s the matter with them, but also knows what matters to them,” Meyer said.
“An algorithm can help get someone’s high blood pressure under control, but AI isn’t going to help them feel any better if the person’s marriage is falling apart, they’re about to lose their job, and they just need someone to understand the stress they’re going through and help them manage it.”
“The very best providers of the future are the ones who will be able to take empathy and humanity to the next level – and they will be able to do that because artificial intelligence is taking care of the routine grunt work and taking the admin off their plates.”
Meyer will continue to share his insights on optimal strategies for deploying artificial intelligence into the clinical environment at the World Medical Innovation Forum.
He will be joined by experts from across the care continuum as they explore the challenges and opportunities of architecting an AI-driven consumer experience. To learn more about the event and register to attend, please click here.