The next time you get sick, your care may involve a
form of the technology people use to navigate road trips or pick the right
vacuum cleaner online.
Artificial intelligence is spreading into health care,
often as software or a computer program capable of learning from large amounts
of data and making predictions to guide care or help patients.
It already detects an eye disease tied to diabetes and
does other behind-the-scenes work like helping doctors interpret MRI scans and
other imaging tests for some forms of cancer.
Now, parts of the health system are starting to use it
directly with patients. During some clinic and telemedicine appointments,
AI-powered software asks patients initial questions about their symptoms that
physicians or nurses normally pose.
And an AI program featuring a talking image of the
Greek philosopher Aristotle is starting to help University of Southern
California students cope with stress.
Researchers say this push into medicine is at an early
stage, but they expect the technology to grow by helping people stay healthy,
assisting doctors with tasks and doing more behind-the-scenes work. They also
think patients will get used to AI in their care just like they’ve gotten
accustomed to using the technology when they travel or shop.
But they say there are limits. Even the most advanced
software has yet to master important parts of care like a doctor’s ability to
feel compassion or use common sense.
“Our mission isn’t to replace human beings where only
human beings can do the job,” said University of Southern California research
professor Albert Rizzo.
Rizzo and his team have been working on a program that
uses AI and a virtual reality character named “Ellie” that was originally
designed to determine whether veterans returning from a deployment might need
Ellie appears on computer monitors and leads a person
through initial questions. Ellie makes eye contact, nods and uses hand gestures
like a human therapist. It even pauses if the person gives a short answer, to
push them to say more.
“After the first or second question, you kind of
forget that it’s a robot,” said Cheyenne Quilter, a West Point cadet helping to
test the program.
Ellie does not diagnose or treat. Instead, human
therapists used recordings of its sessions to help determine what the patient
“This is not AI trying to be your therapist,” said
another researcher, Gale Lucas. “This is AI trying to predict who is most
likely to be suffering.”
The team that developed Ellie also has put together a
newer AI-based program to help students manage stress and stay healthy.
Ask Ari is making its debut at USC this semester to
give students easy access to advice on dealing with loneliness, getting better
sleep or handling other complications that crop up in college life.
Ari does not replace a therapist, but its designers
say it will connect students through their phones or laptops to reliable help
whenever they need it
USC senior Jason Lewis didn’t think the program would
have much for him when he helped test it because he wasn’t seeking counseling.
But he found that Ari covered many topics he could relate to, including
information on how social media affects people.
“Everybody thinks they are alone in their thoughts and
problems,” he said. “Ari definitely counters that isolation.”
Aside from addressing mental health needs, artificial
intelligence also is at work in more common forms of medicine.
The tech company AdviNOW Medical and 98point6, which
provides treatment through secure text messaging, both use artificial
intelligence to question patients at the beginning of an appointment.
AdviNOW CEO James Bates said their AI program decides
what questions to ask and what information it needs. It passes that information
and a suggested diagnosis to a physician who then treats the patient remotely
The company currently uses the technology in a handful
of Safeway and Albertsons grocery store clinics in Arizona and Idaho. But it
expects to expand to about 1,000 clinics by the end of next year.
Eventually, the company wants to have AI diagnose and
treat some minor illnesses, Bates said
Researchers say much of AI’s potential for medicine
lies in what it can do behind the scenes by examining large amounts of data or
images to spot problems or predict how a disease will develop, sometimes
quicker than a doctor.
Future uses might include programs like one that
hospitals currently use to tell doctors which patients are more likely to get
sepsis, said Darren Dworkin, chief information officer at California’s
Cedars-Sinai medical center. Those warnings can help doctors prevent the deadly
illness or treat it quickly.
“It’s basically that little tap on the shoulder that
we all want to get of, ‘Hey, perhaps you should look over here,’” Dworkin said.
Dr. Eric Topol predicts in his book “Deep Medicine”
that artificial intelligence will change medicine, in part by freeing doctors
to spend more time with patients. But he also notes that the technology will
not take over care.
Even the most advanced program cannot replicate
empathy, Topol said. Patients stick to their treatment and prescriptions more
and do better if they know their doctor is pulling for them.
Artificial intelligence also can’t process everything
a doctor considers when deciding on treatment, noted Harvard Medical School’s
Dr. Isaac Kohane. That might include a patient’s tolerance for pain or the
desire to live a few more months to attend a child’s wedding or graduation.
“Good doctors are the ones who understand us and our
goals as human beings,” he said.
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