Artificial intelligence is coming to healthcare. In fact, it's already here, and physicians are benefiting from it, using it to streamline administrative functions and enhance the patient experience.
It's getting so that even smaller practices are able to harness this emerging technology, and not only is it making physicians' lives easier, but jumping on the bandwagon is a smart move financially. Patient experience is now a metric that ties into reimbursement, and if that experience can be enhanced, then patients and their caregivers all benefit.
The good news for small practices is that they don't have to wait to start implementing some aspects of AI, particularly if they're using the same electronic health records systems as some of the larger nearby providers. According to Lisa Hedges, a consult analyst at Software Advice, the technology being used at both small and large practices is already being harnessed to diagnose diseases sooner, smoothing out administrative headaches and curbing medical errors via advanced diagnostics.
Smaller practices may not be able to fully utilize some of the bigger technological innovations that are on the horizon, but due to the practice size, they don't require as much from technology, either. They can still benefit from innovations like AI-assisted decision support -- or chatbots, which are evolving into the Amazon Echos of healthcare.
"They're what I imagine Siri would be like if she had a medical degree," said Hedges. "They're designed to be conversational resources. For example, let's say your primary care physician offers chatbox, and you're feeling under the weather, and you log in and say, 'Hey, chatbot, I've got these symptoms: Headache, chills, sore throat.' Chatbots interact with you, so they'll ask more questions, and depending on your answers chatbots can actually help you decide what you should do."
An increasingly common use case for chatbots is connecting to scheduling systems to help patients book appointments, for instance. Hedges also sees AI as a useful tool in combating the looming physician shortage by dint of its ability to automate or speed up non-clinical tasks and administrative processes. It frees up physicians to see more patients, allowing them to tend to the growing population of aging Baby Boomers that is already starting to tax the system. An example of this, she said, can already been seen in China, where a physician shortage is already in full swing. Chinese physicians have already embraced AI, and things like diagnostics and machine learning is already making things faster.
"There's been a subtle shift between decision making and machine learning," said Hodges. "What we have now are intelligent decision support systems, as opposed to the old systems where you'd input a set of rules or best practices and the computer would identify things in the physician treatment plan that contradict the rules. That was a much more formulaic way to help physicians make decisions. Now … it's able to learn those rules and implement them. It allows physicians to be in more of a supervisory role."
Hodges dismisses concerns that technology and AI will replace physicians altogether. While AI will make their lives easier, she said, it won't make them obsolete -- it can't. Physicians are the experts, and they're the ones having the most input on these new technologies.
Executives at hospitals of all sizes would be smart to keep an eye on how quickly small practices put AI, machine learning and chatbots to work.
"That's the best yardstick for how AI is going to permeate the healthcare industry," Hedges said. "It's one thing to have technology available for Johns Hopkins, or huge hospitals with access to cutting edge stuff. It's another for it to be offered to a local doc-in-a-box in Mississippi. That's how we're going to know it's really intertwined and solidified as part of the healthcare industry."