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Is Artificial Intelligence the New Frontier for Healthcare?

By: David Ostrowsky

The ills of the American healthcare system, namely an undue administrative burden on healthcare providers and a labor supply not keeping pace with the demand for services, have been well documented. But now, as we grind through the 2020s, relief may be on the way with the booming popularity (or in some cases, acceptance) of artificial intelligence (AI). Many healthcare experts believe that AI – a mechanism grounded in the simulation of human intelligence by computerized systems and one that has already changed how many humans learn and work – could revolutionize the field. But as enticing as the prospect of AI driving forward greater industrywide systemic efficiency may be, should this gargantuan development be universally celebrated? 

Certainly, from a patient's perspective, AI has intriguing potential. Imagine not having to wait on hold for who knows how long to schedule your next medical appointment because instead you could simply connect with Generative AI that spews out language so natural and fluid that it seemingly emanates from a person’s voice box? The same holds true with medication refills and answers to straightforward medical inquiries. For tens of millions of Americans, including those for whom the day is not long enough to string together multiple low-paying jobs, the saved time could be, for lack of a better word, life-altering. Meanwhile, for an often burned-out, short-staffed medical workforce trying to allocate scarce resources, this could be a tremendous boon. And for their respective patients suffering from both acute and chronic conditions, the end result could be vastly higher quality, more customized care.

The titans of the industry have certainly taken note over the past year plus. In a recent article published on the Johnson & Johnson website,
Jeff Headd, Vice President, Commercial Data Science, Janssen North America Business Technology, was quoted as saying, “The rapid growth in available healthcare-related data in recent years allows us to ask bigger questions. Using the latest innovations in AI and machine learning (ML), we are able to quickly analyze these vast datasets (including electronic medical records, lab results or even medical imaging like X-rays, MRIs and CT scans), uncover new insights and then drive actions with real potential to improve patient outcomes.”

Bear in mind this could very well mean improving the welfare of some of America’s most historically underserved populations in healthcare – African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians and Alaska Natives. Perhaps another segment of the population that stands to be a chief beneficiary are communities residing in the country’s most rural outposts. Simply put, if medical practitioners are able to leverage AI toward streamlining time-consuming functions (i.e., administrative work), there will be more opportunities to interact with broader swaths of the population.

And yet, despite all of society’s collective wonderment, the potential drawbacks of AI taking over healthcare warrant consideration, too. Speaking of healthcare-related data, as Headd referenced, would the expected airtight protection of patients’ personal data ever be compromised with AI assuming a more prominent role? With
more healthcare software systems adopting AI-based features, there is greater need for gathering more data, naturally increasing the likelihood of security threats and violations of compliance with regulatory frameworks such as  
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). (As of this hour HIPAA does not have a specific provision that relates to AI.) What does this mean for the common folk? While the hypothetical answer could be a blog in and of itself, the safeguarding of protected health information (“PHI”), which can involve anything from one’s cholesterol levels to mental health history, could be in jeopardy. Lest we forget, AI is both really new and extremely powerful, meaning the unanticipated side effects are boundless. Just like personal financial information, PHI is not something that should be floating aimlessly around the virtual universe.

Nevertheless, there’s a reason that industries across all seven continents have incorporated artificial intelligence into their systems over the past couple years. Specifically concerning the medical field, what provider wouldn’t welcome enhanced efficiency and productivity and more expedited decision-making? What patient wouldn’t like to know that their physicians are making better use of their precious time? By all accounts, AI is not going anywhere – in the healthcare industry and beyond. But still, it doesn’t hurt to consume the latest (i.e., daily) news of artificial intelligence with a (no pun intended) healthy dose of skepticism.