Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare: A Smart Decision?

As human beings, we often think we are each unique individuals with his or own personal story to tell.  As I have often said when encouraging other parents not to compare their kids to other children, “Babies are like snowflakes, none of them are exactly the same.”

Healthcare providers often think this about their patients, too. After all, people have their own genetic make-up and experience a unique set of environmental factors that influence their health. And we’ve all seen those patients, who for whatever reason, don’t respond to medication, surgery or other interventions the way other patients have.

I’ve heard skeptics of evidence-based practice, comparative effectiveness and outcomes based reimbursement say that because each patient is unique, it’s unreasonable to expect “cookie cutter”  interventions to work. This sentiment if often accompanied by the “I’m a professional. I can decide what’s best so don’t tell me what to do” argument. Health care providers also value their individuality.

But new research from Indiana University found that using artificial intelligence in patient care can save money and improve patient outcomes. In the study, physicians who used an AI framework to make patient care decisions had patient outcomes that were 50 percent better than physicians who did not use AI. Also, health care costs decreased by more than 50 percent, from $497 to $187, when physicians used AI.

WatsonIn 2011, WellPoint, a division of health care insurer BlueCross BlueShield, teamed with IBM to use Jeopardy! champ and future “computer overlord” Watson to evaluate evidence-based cancer treatments.

This type of technology can be applied to the business of healthcare as well. Assay Healthcare Solutions has created software that applies a mathematical formula to nurse scheduling. Rather than taking the standard approach to staffing, which involves assessing patient acuity at the end of a shift and guessing (it’s a holiday we’ll need less staff; surgeries are scheduled on Monday so we’ll need more) how much staff is needed, this software can evaluate previous past and present trends in patient acuity and create a predictive schedule. In other words, it can tell you that based on the past three-years worth of data, a nursing unit will need a certain number of staff every April 13. This type of scheduling can save labor costs because the unit is less likely to be over or understaffed.

Does the development and use of AI technology mean our human health care providers will be replaced by a computerized Dr. Watson? I don’t think so. This technology is not meant to replace human healthcare providers. It’s meant to be a tool to support their skills.

Each year, more and more medications, scientific developments, treatments and technology enter the healthcare area. It’s unreasonable to expect a health care provider to be able to sift through all that information on their own. After all, we are just humans. Our brains only have a certain amount of RAM. Even more important, we only have so much time. Supercomputers and AI can help make quickly finding the right information a reality.

Just because AI can apply data to improve patient care, it doesn’t mean that health providers, or patients for that matter, are not individuals. If a provider can’t make a personal connection with a patient, then all the data in the world will not make a difference. Making a connection with patients and finding out what obstacles and barriers they may be facing is essential to improving their health. For example, if a patient doesn’t have transportation to get to and from follow-up visits, it doesn’t matter what kind of data you have on hand. You won’t be able to apply it if the patient can’t get to his appointment.

Personal connection and conversation with a healthcare provider will uncover these types of issues. While a computer may have data, healthcare providers have the real key to better patient outcomes—the depth of human connection.

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Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ

Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ, is a registered nurse and journalist who has covered healthcare issues and how they relate to the nursing profession. She began her nursing career as a neuroscience nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and then transitioned to journalism after receiving a degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has edited and written numerous articles on a wide range of nursing and healthcare topics like Accountable Care Organizations, evidence-based practice and telehealth.

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