By Maryalene LaPonsie, Contributor | March 31, 2017, at 11:35 a.m.
AI may potentially be used to diagnose illnesses or recommend custom treatments based on DNA analysis. (GETTY IMAGES)
Artificial intelligence is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Intelligent assistants such as iPhone’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are already mainstays in many households. They can answer questions, perform digital tasks and even operate other devices remotely.
However, AI – as artificial intelligence is known – isn’t just a novelty. Some say it has the potential to revolutionize how care is delivered to a senior population that is about to explode in number.
“I believe AI will follow a predictable path,” says John Sculley, former Apple CEO and current chairman and CMO for RxAdvance. “First as a curiosity, then it becomes useful and finally it becomes pervasive.” According to those in the industry, we’ve passed the curiosity phase, and AI is already proving itself a valuable asset in the medical field.
How AI could be used in health care. For those not in the industry, the term AI can bring about visions of robot doctors diagnosing illnesses and treating patients. The reality, however, is far less glamorous.
“AI is a really fancy term for people coding algorithms that analyze massive data sets,” says Joseph Ferraro, CTO for Mavens, a company that creates cloud-based solutions for pharma and life sciences firms. “It’s a lot of geeky and nerdy stuff behind the scenes.”
While there is a possibility people may eventually schedule appointments with intelligent assistants or converse with chatbots online about medical problems, that’s not likely to be the main use of AI in medicine. Instead, it’ll probably be deployed as computing programs that do things like diagnose illnesses or recommend custom treatments based on DNA analysis.
When it comes to senior care, Ferraro says AI may be most promising in applications to help people stay in their homes longer. Smart sensors can track movement in a home and monitor vital signs. If anything abnormal should occur, the system can then call in a nurse or family member to check on the resident’s well-being.
Better quality, lower costs. Substituting computer algorithms for human attention may seem like a recipe for depersonalizing health care experiences. However, proponents of AI say that’s not necessarily the case. These smart systems should reduce human error and free up time for health care professionals to focus on important interactions with patients.
Artem Petakov, co-founder of behavior-change company Noom, says AI allows providers to scale services without sacrificing quality. Noom offers programs designed to help people make habit changes needed to reverse obesity, hypertension and diabetes. While participants have access to trained coaches, AI makes it possible for them to reach more people.
“AI is taking things the coach would have to do manually and automating it,” Petakov says. For instance, the AI can analyze participant entries and provide positive reinforcement. When the system isn’t confident on a response, it asks a coach for input. “We’re building a system that’s learning from hundreds of coaches and imitating them,” Petakov explains.
Another benefit of AI is cost efficiency. Prevention programs can cost thousands of dollars per participant. Plus, people needed to travel to clinics for services, making it inconvenient. However, an online prevention program costs only a fraction of the price and can be accessed anywhere. “The AI makes it totally affordable,” Petakov says.
Medicare may soon pay for some AI services. The cost-saving potential of AI may mean Medicare will embrace it. “I think it’s going to significantly cut costs and that could eventually impact government budgets in a positive way,” Ferraro says. Medicare is considering whether to cover care for some services integrating AI.
“AI will be one of the most important new technologies to make Medicare personalized and cost sustainable as millions of older people reach 65 every year,” Sculley predicts. Whether it’s avoiding costly diabetes complications or keeping seniors healthy and in their home longer, the benefits of AI can be far-reaching.
When it comes to revolutionizing health care, AI won’t be as flashy as having a personal robot physician. However, its potential for minimizing human error, customizing treatments and saving money may make it even better than the sci-fi fantasy.