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How Will AI Impact Healthcare?

Physical Health

March 27, 2024
AI Robot as a Doctor

While it may feel like everyone has just started to talk about artificial intelligence — commonly referred to as AI — it’s been around since the 1950s. AI refers to any technique that aims to make a machine “smart.”

Movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix have made some people wary of AI becoming integrated into our daily lives. However, AI has the potential to significantly improve the quality of healthcare in the future. Whether you’re ready or not, the unknown future of AI rolls toward us.

What Is AI?

According to the United States (US) National Artificial Intelligence Act of 2020, “The term ‘artificial intelligence’ means a machine-based system that can, for a given set of human-defined objectives, make predictions, recommendations, or decisions influencing real or virtual environments.”

Types of AI include:

  • Machine learning — involves systems that can learn by themselves
  • Deep learning — involves computer models that detect patterns with only minimal human involvement
  • Natural language processing — focuses on teaching machines to understand, interpret, and generate human language

How Does AI Work?

AI is when machines or computers are designed to perform tasks that usually require a human. The first step of designing these smart machines is to input data from the environment. The type of data depends on the task but may include text, images, or numbers.

Next, the AI system will process the input data using an algorithm that tells the computer how to use and analyze the data. The AI system will then learn the different patterns and relationships present within the data. This is also known as machine learning.

Based on what the AI system learned, it can begin making decisions or predictions, such as recognizing patterns in large amounts of data, identifying an object in an image, or solving problems. Based on these decisions, the AI system can complete a given task or provide a recommendation. Some AI systems also incorporate a way to improve performance over time by updating the algorithms used based on the results.

How Is AI Used in Healthcare?

Researchers are discovering the ways that AI can assist in different healthcare challenges.

Personalized Medicine

Personalized medicine is an individualized treatment approach where healthcare providers tailor a treatment plan based on your unique factors, including your:

  • Genetics
  • Lifestyle habits
  • Biomarkers (measurements used to monitor your health)

Healthcare providers can use AI as a tool to analyze your health data to predict outcomes and recommend the optimal treatment plan for you. Researchers have also used AI to predict outcomes in several different medical conditions.

Treatment Selection

Researchers have used AI to help choose the right treatment for some medical conditions.

For example, healthcare providers can use AI to analyze the genetics of people with cancer to predict their response to chemotherapy. In a 2018 study, researchers found that machine learning AI algorithms could predict the response people have to chemotherapy with more than 80% accuracy.

Depression is another condition that can be difficult to treat. Some people need to try several different medications before they find an effective treatment for their depression. It can take weeks or months to find the right antidepressant for some people. AI may be able to increase the odds that the first antidepressant you try is the right one. Researchers in a 2023 study used AI to screen electronic health records to predict how someone will react to a certain antidepressant.

As research in AI continues, scientists will discover more ways to use AI to find the right treatment for the right person.

Dose Selection

Healthcare providers can also use AI to choose the right medication dose while reducing the risk of side effects.

A 2021 study found that AI can help healthcare providers choose the right dose of warfarin, a drug used to treat and prevent drug clots. Accurate dosing of warfarin allows the drug to work more efficiently while preventing dangerous side effects, like bleeding.

Researchers are also investigating how AI can be used to improve chemotherapy dosing and antibiotic dosing.

Predicting Side Effects

AI-powered systems may be able to predict the side effects of certain medications by predicting which patients have a higher risk of drug side effects or drug interactions. Armed with this information, healthcare providers can avoid poor outcomes due to side effects.

Patient Education and Medical Advice

When you’re diagnosed with a new medical condition, your healthcare providers help you learn more about your condition so you can improve your health, understand your treatment, and prevent complications. Researchers are looking into ways that AI can help educate you about medical issues.

Research has shown that patients who have received education about their disease are more likely to stick to their treatment and have better health outcomes. AI-powered tools can help patients learn more about their health. For example, a prostate cancer communication assistant powered by AI helped to increase the participants’ understanding of prostate cancer.

In addition to helping people understand their disease, AI technology can help answer common medical questions that can free up healthcare providers to help more patients. Some companies have developed “AI doctors” to help diagnose common medical conditions by chatting directly with patients. Chatbots — computer programs that understand and simulate conversation with a human — can also be used to educate and coach patients with certain diseases. Early research has shown that the number of provider office visits and hospital visits is decreased in people who use chatbots for health coaching with certain diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

We are starting to see AI services being tested in the real world. The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom (UK) has tested a phone application powered by AI to answer non-emergency medical problems.

Patient Monitoring

Doctor checking patient profile on a tablet

When you have certain health conditions, your healthcare provider may wish to monitor you at home. For example, if you wear a smartwatch that tracks your activity, heart rate, and other health data, AI can help to integrate your health information into your medical chart. Your healthcare provider can then use this information to spot signs of disease in the early stages.

If you have diabetes, your doctor will ask you to keep track of your blood sugar levels at home. AI can help providers track trends and prevent problems before they get worse. A 2021 study found that using AI technology can help people with diabetes avoid serious problems caused by incorrect use of medication.

Improving Diagnosis

Identifying a disease based on specific signs and symptoms continues to present a challenge for healthcare providers despite advances in medicine. AI systems show great promise in improving the accuracy of diagnosing certain conditions. Several studies have shown that AI can improve diagnosis.

Skin cancer is a common type of cancer that can be difficult for providers to spot. AI systems can be trained to spot skin cancer using images of skin cancer. Studies have shown that AI-powered algorithms can diagnose more cases of skin cancer than dermatologists (doctors who specialize in treating skin conditions).

A 2020 study in South Korea found that an AI-powered algorithm was better than radiologists (doctors who specialize in diagnosing medical conditions using imaging tests) at detecting early breast cancer.

Other studies have shown that AI may be better than humans in diagnosing diseases, including pneumonia, heart disease, eye disease, Parkinson’s disease, and several different types of cancer.

Using AI to assist in diagnosing medical conditions may help your healthcare provider diagnose your medical condition earlier so you can start treatment and improve your odds of a better outcome. You may also be able to avoid unnecessary tests, provider office visits, and hospital stays.

Disease Research and Drug Discovery

AI is good at recognizing patterns in large amounts of data. The field of medical research is filled with huge sets of data, such as your genes. Genomic medicine uses information about your genes to improve your health outcomes. This is an emerging field that has led to huge breakthroughs in disease research. AI-powered machines can easily analyze large amounts of information from a population of people or an individual to find patterns that help in the diagnosis and treatment of many different medical conditions.

AI can also be used to speed up the process of discovering new drugs. About 90% of potential new drugs don’t make it past clinical trials. AI-powered systems can help researchers select drugs that have a better chance of succeeding in clinical trials and improving health outcomes. Examples of how AI may be able to assist researchers include:

  • Conducting background research
  • Finding new drug targets
  • Predicting how drugs will interact in your body
  • Predicting the population of people most likely to benefit from the drug

What Are the Risks and Challenges of Using AI in Healthcare?

The challenges of using AI in healthcare include a low level of trust, a risk of bias, and privacy concerns.

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center conducted in December 2022, 60% of Americans don’t feel comfortable with their healthcare providers relying on AI for their own healthcare. At the time of the survey, Americans didn’t seem convinced that using AI in healthcare would improve their outcomes.

This survey also revealed concerns about using AI in regard to a worsening doctor–patient relationship. AI-powered chatbots may lead to less empathy and personalization in healthcare, especially in the field of mental health.

One area the participants in the Pew Research Center survey thought would improve with AI is racial and ethnic bias; 51% of participants thought that unfair treatment due to bias would improve with the use of AI. To ensure this outcome, AI developers must make sure the data used to train AI are also free of bias.

Factors such as gender and race are already used by healthcare providers to make clinical decisions. Researchers are evaluating how these biases may impact care. It’s still not clear how incorporating gender or race into an AI model will affect care. To ensure equitable and inclusive care for everyone, AI developers and regulators must understand the potential impact of any underlying bias before an AI tool is used to make decisions.

Privacy is another potential concern for using AI in healthcare. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (commonly referred to as HIPAA) is a federal law that protects your sensitive health information from being revealed without your consent. As AI continues to evolve, more laws and regulations will be necessary to protect your information.

What Is the Future of AI in Healthcare?

Doctor talking to his patient

The use of AI in healthcare is continuously evolving and has the potential to transform healthcare. Continued research is needed to evaluate how the use of AI impacts health outcomes for specific diseases and treatments.

If AI is used wisely, it can be an invaluable tool that frees up more time for healthcare providers to spend with their patients and improve health outcomes. However, regulators should address the potential for bias and security problems while using AI.

The next generation of doctors is learning how to use AI in healthcare. A 2023 study found that almost all of the current medical students who participated in the survey were aware of how AI can be used in healthcare.

Only time will tell how AI impacts the field of healthcare. How do you feel about your healthcare providers using AI in your care?

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.
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