It seems as if the conversation around the nature of healthcare’s AI future is one that’s been conducted without the voices of patients themselves
Right now, there’s no topic generating more hype than artificial intelligence. Whether it’s in the promise of safer self-driving cars; the threat of job automation; or the vision of the virtual assistant that knows your shopping list before you even know it yourself, artificial intelligence is tipped to transform every aspect of our lives. And this is particularly true in healthcare, where over the last five years AI startups have raised over 300 equity investment deals – more than in any other sector.
Investment, however, isn’t enough on its own to determine future direction or velocity, and there are several likely limiting factors on the impact that AI may have on healthcare over the short to medium term. For a start, the technology itself, as highlighted by a recent STAT News report on IBM’s Watson, still remains in its infancy – despite media and marketing claims to the opposite.
Then there’s the nature of healthcare itself. Silicon Valley’s disruptive mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ is all very well if all that’s at risk of being broken is the integrity of a shopping list and a delivery slot, but when it’s human wellbeing at stake you probably need to move more slowly – and to take care.
It also seems as if the conversation around the nature of healthcare’s AI future is one that’s been conducted without the voices of patients themselves. It’s one thing to look at what technology can make possible; but another thing entirely to understand what’s probable in terms of acceptance, uptake and outcomes.
In a new patient survey of about 800 European and American patients and 200 caregivers, Syneos Health hopes to add these voices to the conversation, and to shift its focus: from what AI could do for healthcare providers, product companies and investors; to what AI should do for patients.
Responding to our wide-ranging questions, a majority of patients shared fears about AI’s future prominence, concerns over the role of technology companies in oversight of their health data, and their desire to keep real-world physicians closely involved in their care.
Interestingly, our survey results also give an insight into where the digitally driven “empowered patient” movement of the last ten years or so may be heading next.
Previously, the impact of digital content, devices and social media has started to disintermediate the roles of physicians and professional organisations – but now the sentiments expressed in our survey results suggest a pendulum swing in the other direction.
What do we mean by this? Well, before the very recent spike in the media and the public’s fascination with AI, the rise of “patient power” alongside the ubiquity of internet access and smart-devices created a potent force in healthcare. Tech-savvy consumers were showing up at the doctor’s office with detailed information on their health complaints, culled from websites or from the voices of other patients in online communities.
Many were also keeping track of their vital signs, thanks to a dazzling array of personal health devices and apps. These patients were calling their own shots on how, when, and where they receive medical attention – in the process, shifting “point-of-care” to wherever the patient happened to be sitting.
The ripple effects of this patient power started to erode traditional top-down and paternalistic attitudes among researchers, practitioners, and medical organisations. If the term “patient-centricity” is on the lips of every provider and product supplier, then it’s because these digitally empowered patients placed it there.
This shift away from paternalism and dependency on the established information pathways of the ‘traditional’ healthcare system also sounded a clarion call to Silicon Valley and spurred the entry of the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple into the business of health. It’s unlikely these companies would have entered into healthcare on such a scale if patients hadn’t clearly broadcast their desire for better service and experiences, and their willingness to help overturn medicine’s status quo.
Yet, what our patient survey seems to show is that the advent of AI – and with it the ever-present suggestion of disintermediating the human elements of healthcare – has triggered a clear apprehension around the role of non-traditional stakeholders and outside innovators.
From our survey responses, we learned that patient excitement about artificial intelligence in healthcare doesn’t match that of investors. Only one in five European patients describes themselves as “very excited” about healthcare AI, while more than half register a level of concern.
Most telling were our results around trust. We specifically asked patients their thoughts around AI-driven “virtual nursing assistants” which could support them in their health, condition and medication management in between nurse or doctor visits. While the concept was well-received, it was clear that actual acceptance and usage of these would be inextricably tied to their provenance and endorsement. Only 14 percent of patients would trust a virtual nursing assistant from a technology company such as Google, Amazon, Apple or Facebook (and this was before the scale of Facebook’s disregard for its users’ data and security became public knowledge).
For healthcare communicators, what this means is that we have our work cut out for us. We need to educate patients and providers on the role AI already plays in trusted applications already within our lives, we need to ensure that a focus on new ‘shiny’ opportunities doesn’t remove a focus on inclusive real world, non-digital patient services, and – most of all – we need to be champions of the hopes, fears and expectations of patients themselves.
As US President Eisenhower noted, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” It’s the same for healthcare innovation. Only authentic engagement and involvement of patients can hope to drive sustained success for artificial intelligence in medicine, and all of us need to work harder than ever to ensure that these voices get to shape the future of healthcare rather than seeing it shaped by someone else’s view of 21st Century medicine.
Duncan Arbour is SVP Innovation, Syneos Health Communications Europe