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Artificial Intelligence: The Next Frontier in Health IT? (Part 2)

September 12, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Many will point to the massive potential of leveraging AI in healthcare, but there are complex challenges that need to be figured out first, experts say

Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this article, which covered how AI is being applied in healthcare right now, can be read here.

Although the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare is still very much at a premature level, prognosticators are quite bullish on how AI platforms could be incorporated in the future to improve patient care. Indeed, a 2016 study by market researcher Frost & Sullivan revealed that the market for AI in healthcare is projected to reach $6.6 billion by 2021, representing a 40 percent compound annual growth rate.

The study specifically noted that “Clinical support from AI will strengthen medical imaging diagnosis processes. In addition, the use of AI solutions for hospital workflows will enhance care delivery. Overall, AI has the potential to improve outcomes by 30 to 40 percent while cutting treatment costs by as much as 50 percent.” Researchers attested that AI is already being leveraged at a high level in other sectors, so it’s only a matter of time before “AI systems are poised to transform how we think about disease diagnosis and treatment.” They added, “By 2025, AI systems could be involved in everything from population health management to digital avatars capable of answering specific patient queries. On a global scale, in regions with high underserved patient populations, AI is expected to play a significant role in democratization of information and mitigating resource burdens.”

While the idea is to have AI systems learn and understand new medical functions, and in turn empower doctors to make better evidence-based decisions at the point of care, there has been significant discussion about whether or not the technology’s potential is so powerful that it could one day actually replace human doctors. Indeed, the issue has been written about in major media outlets, with one article in Fortune even quoting athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush as saying, “The human is wrong so freaking often, it’s a massacre. Nobody ever goes after the radiologist—they’re wrong so often we don’t blame [th]em."

However, most healthcare observers will refrain from going as far down that road as Bush did. Many even will say that there is no chance AI will ever replace doctors. They attest that the job of artificial intelligence and machine learning is to mimic human cognitive functions, and to eliminate repetitive work for doctors—not eliminate the doctors themselves.

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Jason Bhan, M.D., a family physician who is the co-founder of New York City-based AI company Prognos, cautions folks to not get too far ahead of themselves. “A lot of people are talking about replacing the doctor, but I am not at all convinced. It’s actually more like ‘beat the doctor,’ or ‘help the doctor in a friendlier way,’” he says. Bhan notes that as he’s going through his patient’s chart, what he doesn’t want is the computer to tell him what to do. “No doctor would be thrilled by that,” he admits. But, he adds, “We understand how to take care of our patients and we do want to be helped. That’s where there’s a huge opportunity for AI to help clinicians in their decision making.”

Bhan brings up an example of looking at a patient chart, where he can draw from his years of clinician experience and predict that the patient has a significant chance of getting diabetes in the next few years. “But machines can look at those patients, bounce it against millions of other patients like that, and say this patient has an 80 percent chance of developing diabetes in the next few years. That really changes my management,” he says. “With the clinical data and the lab data, you can hone that timeframe down into something that’s actionable. That’s where we see AI going.”

Meanwhile, senior executives from consulting firm Sapient Healthcare note that the CIOs they talk to within provider organizations, as well as the physicians in the trenches themselves, have expressed some concern that AI could replace physicians, but the consultants are working to quell those fears. “The real story is that AI will augment your [work] and let you do more interesting things. And there’s truth to that,” says Larry Lefkowitz, Ph.D., chief scientist at SapientRazorfish, a company under Sapient that launched this year. “Also, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of [AI], the technology can be very complementary. An example of that could be physicians and researchers using tools to get their hands on information more readily to help them make the decisions. In those cases, the system isn’t making the decision and the researcher doesn’t want to spend loads of time trying to find the right information, so you have a win-win,” says Lefkowitz.

Peter Borden, managing director at Sapient, notes that people are using the term “augmented intelligence”—meaning that AI is not replacing people, but rather trying to make things more effective. “But that fear of how it will affect people’s lives has to get figured out,” Borden says. “As strong as the business case might be for an organization, if the people internally don’t know how it will affect them, it won’t get adopted.”

Lefkowitz gives an example himself of how AI could supplement a radiologist’s work, as radiology is one area in healthcare where AI and machine learning are already being leveraged in critical situations. He says that numerous studies have shown that a human has a certain error rate and an automated system has a certain error rate, but when used together they have a much lower error rate. In particular, he explains, “Radiologists almost never get a false-positive [result on a mammogram], so if they say it’s a cancer or whatever it might be, they are almost always right, but they’re likely to miss many cases. But on the flip side, the machine learning approaches almost never get a false-negative and tend to be more conservative. So you can combine that and have the machine learning take the first pass at it, [meaning] virtually nothing will get through, and you will be able to present a much smaller number of cases for a human analyst to then look at. So you are again allowing the human to focus on what they do best,” says Lefkowitz.

While clinician pushback may or may not be a real barrier to AI being leveraged more in healthcare, other concrete challenges do exist. Experts who were interviewed for this article all say that access to “good and clean” data remains a real problem. In fact, Bhan calls it the “biggest issue we have right now in this space.” Pundits point to healthcare data sets not yet being big enough, and the correct answers that will be learned are often ambiguous or even unknown in their current state. Much of this stems from the human body being quite complex, with lifestyle and environmental functions playing a role but being hard to measure.

What’s more, the comfort level of humans using the technology could also pose challenges. Borden says that in his conversations with CIOs, it’s not necessarily that there is pushback towards AI, but rather they want to know that it’s supported by the business. And for that to be the case, there has to be well-defined strategies around leveraging AI that incorporate easing people into the program. “Certainly, the idea of having a holistic view of data in order to do analyses is core to the roadmaps for every CIO. So we don’t see much pushback on that,” Borden says. “But the businesses are weary; they know that there’s huge potential, but they intuitively feel the risk about what this change will mean. It’s a change management program, so easing the program into the organization is key,” he says.

Bhan appoints out that everyone is quick to say that healthcare is 10 years behind other industries in terms of adopting technology, so it will certainly take time to leverage AI at a high level. “I would never go to a doctor and say ‘here’s some awesome tool that will tell you the likelihood of a patient getting a disease;’ they are simply not ready for that. The entire system has to ease their way into it, and you do that by finding innovators,” he says.

These innovators could be in the payer, pharma, or provider industry, and the key is to find those innovators and get them to buy in, Bhan says. “You just need to proceed slowly, since doctors are a conservative lot in general, and for the right reason, since it is important not to make mistakes and validate why you make certain decisions. This is not like picking up an iPhone and starting to use it. You need to put the patient first. There’s a lot of complexity,” he says.

 


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Dr. AI Will See You Now: Machines and the Future of Medicine

December 18, 2018
by Dr. Gautam Sivakumar, Industry Voice, CEO, Medisas
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Artificial intelligence (AI) has been a hot topic lately. Much has been said about its promise to improve our lives, as well as its threat to replace jobs ranging from receptionists to radiologists. These wider discussions have naturally led to some interesting questions about the future of medicine. What role will human beings have in an ever-changing technology landscape? When AI becomes a better "doctor," what will become of doctors? How will patients and medical professionals adjust to these changes?

While it is, of course, hard to make accurate predictions about the distant future, my experience both as a doctor and now CEO of a software company that uses AI to help doctors deliver safer care, gives me some insight into what the intermediate future will hold for the medical profession.

Medicine is one of the great professions in every culture in the world—an altruistic, challenging, aspirational vocation that often draws the best and the brightest. Doctors spend years in training to make decisions, perform procedures, and guide people through some of their most vulnerable points in life. But medicine is, for the most part, still stuck in a pre-internet era. Entering a hospital is like walking into a time capsule to a world where people still prefer paper, communication happens through pagers, and software looks like it’s from the 1980s or 1990s.

But this won’t last; three giant forces of technology have been building over the last few years, and they are about to fundamentally transform healthcare: the cloud, mobile, and AI. The force least understood by doctors is AI; after all, even technophobic doctors now spend a lot of time using the internet on their smartphones. Even so, AI is the one that will likely have the biggest impact on the profession.

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A lot of people believe that AI will become the primary decision maker, replacing human doctors. In that eventuality, Dr. AI will still need a human “interface,” because it is likely patients will need the familiarity of a human to translate the AI’s clinical decision making and recommendations. I find it an intriguing thought—going to the doctor’s office and seeing a human whose job it is to read the recommendations of a computer just to offer the human touch.

But to understand what the future could hold, we must first understand the different types of problems that need to be solved. Broadly, problems can be split into simple, complicated, and complex ones. Simple and complicated problems can be solved using paradigmatic thought (following standardized sets of rules), something computers excel at. What makes complex problems unique is that they require judgment based on more than just numbers and logic. For the time being, the modern machine learning techniques that we classify as “AI” are not well suited to solving complex problems that require this deeper understanding of context, systems, and situation.

Given the abundance of complex problems in medicine, I believe that the human “interfaces” in an AI-powered future won't simply be compassionate people whose only job is to sit and hold the hand of a patient while reading from a script. These people will be real doctors, trained in medicine in much the same way as today—in anatomy, physiology, embryology, and more. They will understand the science of medicine and the decision making behind Dr. AI. They will be able to explain things to the patient and field their questions in a way that only people can. And most importantly, they will be able to focus on solving complex medical problems that require a deeper understanding, aided by Dr. AI.

I believe that the intermediate future of medicine will feel very similar to aviation today. Nobody questions whether commercial airline pilots should still exist, even though computers and autopilot now handle the vast majority of a typical flight. Like these pilots, doctors will let "auto-doc" automate the routine busy work that has regrettably taken over a lot of a clinician’s day—automatically tackling simple problems that only require human monitoring, such as tracking normal lab results or following an evidence-based protocol for treatment. This will let doctors concentrate on the far more complex situations, like pilots do for takeoffs and landings.

Dr. AI will become a trusted assistant who can help a human doctor make the best possible decision, with the human doctor still acting as the ultimate decision maker. Dr. AI can pull together all of the relevant pieces of data, potentially highlighting things a human doctor may not normally spot in an ocean of information, while the human doctor can take into consideration the patient and their situation as a whole.

Medicine is both an art and a science, requiring doctors to consider context when applying evidence-based practices. AI will certainly take over the science of medicine in the coming years but most likely won't take over the art for a while. However, in the near future, doctors will need to evolve from being scientists who understand the art of medicine to artists who understand the science.

Dr. Gautam Sivakumar is the CEO of Medisas


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Have CIOs’ Top Priorities for 2018 Become a Reality?

December 12, 2018
by Rajiv Leventhal, Managing Editor
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In comparing healthcare CIOs’ priorities at the end of 2017 to this current moment, new analysis has found that core clinical IT goals have shifted from focusing on EHR (electronic health record) integration to data analytics.

In December 2017, hospitals CIOs said they planned to mostly focus on EHR integration and mobile adoption and physician buy-in, according to a survey then-conducted by Springfield, Va.-based Spok, a clinical communications solutions company, of College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) member CIOs.

The survey from one year ago found that across hospitals, 40 percent of CIO respondents said deploying an enterprise analytics platform is a top priority in 2018. Seventy-one percent of respondents cited integrating with the EHR is a top priority, and 62 percent said physician adoption and buy-in for securing messaging was a top priority in the next 18 months. What’s more, 38 percent said optimizing EHR integration with other hospital systems with a key focus for 2018.

Spok researchers were curious whether their predictions became reality, so they analyzed several industry reports and asked a handful of CIOs to recap their experiences from 2018. The most up-to-date responses revealed that compared to last year when just 40 percent of CIOs said they were deploying an enterprise analytics platform in 2018, harnessing data analytics looks to be a huge priority in 2019: 100 percent of the CIOs reported this as top of mind.

Further comparisons on 2018 predictions to realities included:

  • 62 percent of CIOs predicted 2018 as the year of EHR integration; 75 percent reported they are now integrating patient monitoring data
  • 79 percent said they were selecting and deploying technology primarily for secure messaging; now, 90 percent of hospitals have adopted mobile technology and report that it’s helping improve patient safety and outcomes
  • 54 percent said the top secure messaging challenge was adoption/buy in; now, 51 percent said they now involve clinicians in mobile policy and adoption

What’s more, regarding future predictions, 87 percent of CIOs said they expect to increase spending on cybersecurity in 2019, and in three years from now, 60 percent of respondents expect data to be stored in a hybrid/private cloud.

CIOs also expressed concern regarding big tech companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google disrupting the healthcare market; 70 percent said they were somewhat concerned.

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How One Community Hospital is Leveraging AI to Bolster Its Care Pathways Process

December 6, 2018
by Heather Landi, Associate Editor
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Managing clinical variation continues to be a significant challenge facing most hospitals and health systems today as unwarranted clinical variation often results in higher costs without improvements to patient experience or outcomes.

Like many other hospitals and health systems, Flagler Hospital, a 335-bed community hospital in St. Augustine, Florida, had a board-level mandate to address its unwarranted clinical variation with the goal of improving outcomes and lowering costs, says Michael Sanders, M.D., Flagler Hospital’s chief medical information officer (CMIO).

“Every hospital has been struggling with this for decades, managing clinical variation,” he says, noting that traditional methods of addressing clinical variation management have been inefficient, as developing care pathways, which involves identifying best practices for high-cost procedures, often takes up to six months or even years to develop and implement. “By the time you finish, it’s out of date,” Sanders says. “There wasn’t a good way of doing this, other than picking your spots periodically, doing analysis and trying to make sense of the data.”

What’s more, available analytics software is incapable of correlating all the variables within the clinical, billing, analytics and electronic health record (EHR) databases, he notes.

Another limitation is that care pathways are vulnerable to the biases of the clinicians involved, Sanders says. “In medicine, what we typically do is we’ll have an idea of what we want to study, design a protocol, and then run the trial and collect the data that we think is important and then we try to disprove or prove our hypothesis,” he says.

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Sanders says he was intrigued by advances in machine learning tools and artificial intelligence (AI) platforms capable of applying advanced analytics to identify hidden patterns in data.

Working with Palo Alto, Calif.-based machine intelligence software company Ayasdi, Flagler Hospital initiated a pilot project to use Ayasdi’s clinical variation management application to develop care pathways for both acute and non-acute conditions and then measure adherence to those pathways.

Michael Sanders, M.D.

Flagler targeted their treatment protocols for pneumonia as an initial care process model. “We kicked around the idea of doing sepsis first, because it’s a huge problem throughout the country. We decided to use pneumonia first to get our feet wet and figure out how to use the tool correctly,” he says.

The AI tools from Ayasdi revealed new, improved care pathways for pneumonia after analyzing thousands of patient records from the hospital and identifying the commonalities between those with the best outcomes. The application uses unsupervised machine learning and supervised prediction to optimally align the sequence and timing of care with the goal of optimizing for patient outcomes, cost, readmissions, mortality rate, provider adherence, and other variables.

The hospital quickly implemented the new pneumonia pathway by changing the order set in its Allscripts EHR system. As a result, for the pneumonia care path, Flagler Hospital saved $1,350 per patient and reduced the length of stay (LOS) for these patients by two days, on average. What’s more, the hospital reduced readmission by 7 times—the readmission rate dropped from 2.9 percent to 0.4 percent, hospital officials report. The initial work saved nearly $850,000 in unnecessary costs—the costs were trimmed by eliminating labs, X-rays and other processes that did not add value or resulted in a reduction in the lengths of stay or readmissions.

“Those results are pretty amazing,” Sanders says. “It’s taking our data and showing us what we need to pursue. That’s powerful.”

With the success of the pneumonia care pathway, Flagler Hospital leaders also deployed a new sepsis pathway. The hospital has expanded its plans for using Ayasdi to develop new care pathways, from the original plan of tackling 12 conditions over three years, to now tackling one condition per month. Future plans are to tackle heart failure, total hip replacement, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), hysterectomy and diabetes, among other conditions. Flagler Hospital expects to save at least $20 million from this program in the next three years, according to officials.

Finding the “Goldilocks” group

Strong collaboration between IT and physician teams has been a critical factor in deploying the AI tool and to continue to successfully implement new care pathways, Sanders notes.

The effort to create the first pathway began with the IT staff writing structured query language (SQL) code to extract the necessary data from the hospital’s Allscripts EHR, enterprise data warehouse, surgical, financial and corporate performance systems. This data was brought into the clinical variation management application using the FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) standard.

“That was a major effort, but some of us had been data scientists before we were physicians, and so we parameterized all these calls. The first pneumonia care path was completed in about nine weeks. We’ve turned around and did a second care path, for sepsis, which is much harder, and we’ve done that in two weeks. We’ve finished sepsis and have moved on to total hip and total knee replacements. We have about 18 or 19 care paths that we’re going to be doing over the next 18 months,” he says.

After being fed data of past pneumonia treatments, the software automatically created cohorts of patients who had similar outcomes accompanied by the treatments they received at particular times and in what sequence. The program also calculated the direct variable costs, average lengths of stay, readmission and mortality rates for each of those cohorts, along with the statistical significance of its conclusions. Each group had different comorbidities, such as diabetes, COPD and heart failure, which was factored into the application's calculations. At the push of a button, the application created a care path based on the treatment given to the patients in each cohort.

The findings were then reviewed with the physician IT group, or what Sanders calls the PIT crew, to select what they refer to as the “Goldilocks” cohort. “This is a group of patients that had the combination of low cost, short length of stay, low readmissions and almost zero mortality rate. We then can publish the care path and then monitor adherence to that care path across our physicians,” Sanders says.

The AI application uncovered relationships and patterns that physicians either would not have identified or would have taken much longer to identify, Sanders says. For instance, the analysis revealed that for patients with pneumonia and COPD, beginning nebulizer treatments early in their hospital stays improved outcomes tremendously, hospital leaders report.

The optimal events, sequence, and timing of care were presented to the physician team using an intuitive interface that allowed them to understand exactly why each step, and the timing of the action, was recommended. Upon approval, the team operationalized the new care path by revising the emergency-department and inpatient order sets in the hospital EHR.

Sanders says having the data generated by the AI software is critical to getting physicians on board with the project. “When we deployed the tool for the pneumonia care pathway, our physicians were saying, ‘Oh no, not another tool’,” Sanders says. “I brought in a PIT Crew (physician IT crew) and we went through our data with them. I had physicians in the group going through the analysis and they saw that the data was real. We went into the EMR to make sure the data was in fact valid, and after they realized that, then they began to look at the outcomes, the length of stay, the drop in readmissions and how the costs dropped, and they were on board right away.”

The majority of Flagler physicians are adhering to the new care path, according to reports generated by the AI software's adherence application. The care paths effectively sourced the best practices from the hospital’s best doctors using the hospital’s own patient groups, and that is key, Sanders notes.

“When we had conversations with physicians about the data, some would say, ‘My patient is sicker than yours,’ or ‘I have a different patient population.’ However, we can drill down to the physician’s patients and show the physician where things are. It’s not based on an ivory tower analysis, it’s based on our own data. And, yes, our patients, and our community, are unique—a little older than most, and we have a lot of Europeans here visiting. We have some challenges, but this tool is taking our data and showing us what we need to pursue. That’s pretty powerful.”

He adds, “It’s been amazing to see physicians rally around this. We just never had the tool before that could do this.”

While Flagler Hospital is a small community hospital with fewer resources than academic medical centers or larger health systems—for example, the hospital doesn’t have a dedicated data scientist but rather uses its in-house informatics staff for this project—the hospital is progressive in its use of advanced analytics, according to Sanders.

“We’ve been able to do a lot of querying ourselves, and we have some sepsis predictive models that we’ve created and put into place. We do a lot of real-time monitoring for sepsis and central line-associated bloodstream infections,” he says. “Central line-associated bloodstream infections are a bane for all hospitals. In the past year and a half, since we’ve put in our predictive model, we’ve had zero bloodstream infections, and that’s just unheard of.”

Sanders and his team plan to continue to use the AI tool to analyze new data and adjust the care paths according to new discoveries. As the algorithms find more effective and efficient ways to deliver care that result in better outcomes, Flagler will continue to improve its care paths and measure the adherence of its providers.

There continues to be growing interest, and also some hype, around AI tools, but Sanders notes that AI and machine learning are simply another tool. “Historically, what we’ve done is that we had an idea of what we wanted to do, conducted a clinical trial and then proved or disproved the hypothesis, based on the data that we collected. We have a tool with AI which can basically show us relationships that we didn’t know even existed and answer questions that we didn’t know to ask. I think it’s going to open up a tremendous pathway in medicine for us to both reduce cost, improve care and really take better care of our patients,” he says, adding, “When you can say that to physicians, they are on board. They respond to the data.”

 


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