AI and the Future of Healthcare: An Interview with Dr. Alberto Distefano

As part of our ongoing investigation on innovation in healthcare, we asked Americans about their interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and found them very receptive. We thought we’d round that out by getting a physician’s perspective on AI. Yale’s Dr. Alberto Distefano was kind enough to sit down with me and share his thoughts on the future of AI in medicine.

What do you think about the role of artificial intelligence vs. clinical judgement? How do you see them working together?

Artificial intelligence (AI) can play a large role in shaping and guiding clinical judgement. AI has the advantage of performing quick calculations, sorting and analyzing large amounts of data, and coming up with a differential diagnosis based on the best fit. While a clinician does the same thing, the quick creation of a differential diagnosis is based on a learned pattern of recognition based on patient history, exam, labs, imaging, and pathology. AI has the advantage of being able to analyze all these data faster than a human. AI can also consider new research and findings from around the world that a clinician may not have been aware of. AI also does not need to worry about “forgetting” a rare diagnosis or disorder, or having a lack of experience with a certain disease. The clinician has the advantage of taking in information quickly from talking to the patient and examination, which would likely need to be inputted into AI (although AI has been showing strides in ophthalmic exams with accurate diabetic screenings). The clinician can also quickly note what may be superfluous data from the history, exam, or labs that AI may consider, and go down a different road to diagnosis.

In the end, AI and clinical providers can work together to provide the ultimate in healthcare to their patients. AI can analyze all of the data given (especially now as healthcare continues to grow with electronic medical records) to create a differential diagnosis that the clinician can then review and implement (or override, if necessary). Patients will benefit from quicker diagnoses with decreased unnecessary testing and knowledge of all available treatments.

What do you see as being the biggest challenge for digital medicine physician adoption? What about patients?

While most new physicians and younger patients are willing to adopt technological changes to medicine, there will still be some resistance to losing the human touch. For physicians, this may be seen as a threat to their job security. Why have physicians at all if AI can diagnose and administer a treatment plan? This fear will eventually subside as we see the way technology improves patient diagnosis and treatment alongside the physician. This can be as simple as making appointments and contact with the physician easier, to actual patient diagnosis.

Patients may feel that technology in medicine is intrusive, or a risk to their privacy. Of course, patient privacy is of utmost importance, and to always be protected. However, paper records are of no advantage to an electronic system that is properly secured. With time, trust will be attained as patients see that their information is well protected. Patients will also see how much more convenient digital medicine can be as they will be better able to reach their providers, manage appointments and payments, and fill prescriptions.

Twenty years from now, when we look back at the pre-digital era of medicine, what do you think we’ll say?  

Aside from being twenty years older, I personally cannot wait for that moment when we look back and wonder how we managed to provide care during that time! From difficulty in communication with the office, to missed diagnoses, to archaic treatment regimens that didn’t take into account new research, to the large amount of unnecessary testing that was ordered—there is just so much we won’t miss. In comparison, the future of digital medicine will bring an era of efficient communication amongst providers, staff, and patients, improved analysis of labs and imaging, quick diagnosis without the need to order yet another test, saved money for the healthcare system, decreased administrative burden, and overall happy patients and physicians.

To learn more about American’s perspectives on AI, see our whitepaper The AI Will See You Now: Americans Welcome Digital Health. And to better understand patients and physicians perspectives on other aspects of digital medicine, see our article The Future of Healthcare: Physicians and Patients Working Together to Innovate. Is Your Organization Ready?


Alberto Distefano, MD; Instructor in Ophthalmology and Visual Science; Yale School of Medicine



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