Doctor AI: Keeping Patients at the Center of Digital Healthcare

digital healthcare

It’s here! The Digital Healthcare Revolution is here! We’ve all seen it in small ways from that Skype call to your doctor about a sore throat to larger campaigns for IBM’s Watson. As with most other aspects of life, technology plays a greater and greater role and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But let’s slow down for a minute to think about this from the perspective of patients.

Here at Maru/Matchbox, we’ve conducted some exploratory research to gauge opinion on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology in the healthcare industry. While the appetite is there, a segment of patients is uncomfortable with the idea that technology could be acting instead of their trusted physician. They ask:

  1. What if AI makes a mistake diagnosing?
  2. What about the human elements of medicine? How can I talk to a machine?
  3. Will my privacy be at risk?

Well, these are valid questions that need to be properly addressed before we can expect patients to be confident about the digital healthcare revolution.

Where can we find patients open to this new form of healthcare?

Matchbox found the profile of those who like AI and Digital Healthcare to be what you might expect: They’re younger, more educated, and more likely to be covered by employer-sponsored insurance. Patients who support digital healthcare are generally healthier patients.

The twist is that AI-receptive patients suffer from a comparable number of conditions as their non-receptive counterparts – suggesting openness to a whole new way to deliver care to one of our most vulnerable groups. Imagine the possibilities and the good that we can do once we find a way to break AI and Digital Healthcare through to patients.

To start, let’s look at some patient concerns:

What if Artificial Intelligence makes a mistake diagnosing?

When it comes to patient health, a proper diagnosis is everything. If physicians don’t have that, they really don’t have anything. So, it’s important to address this concern head-on, rather than expecting patients to automatically be onboard with a major shift in their healthcare.

Matchbox asked physicians what they think could be done in order to break through this barrier. Many suggested trial tests, similar to the way other therapies are proven. Over time, these pilot studies will be published, the effectiveness of this new method of diagnosing will be demonstrated, and it will become more widespread and known. Trial tests are a great way to ease patients in and help them overcome their uncertainty.

What about the human elements of medicine? How can I talk to a machine?

Thinking about receiving a life changing diagnosis for yourself or a loved one from a machine is the stuff apocalyptic nightmares are made of. I, personally, was quite glad to have my empathetic healthcare providers there when my family found out our loved one needed surgery. We were so overcome with nerves that it really helped to have an understanding human to speak with, to answer all our questions and calm our fears. During the surgery itself, the lovely receptionists were there to hold our hand and keep us updated as to the status of the procedure. It’s a very small thing that they did for us but it’s what keeps us returning with all our healthcare needs. Trust goes a long way.

It’s a very real fear to lose the artful, human element of healthcare in technology. It’s important to remember to provide human interaction at every step of the way, explaining what the technology is doing, why it’s needed, and when it’s appropriate. Technology has strengths and weaknesses. For sure, let’s bring it in to detect minute changes in brain scans or have that rare cancer case in its database in order to give the patient the best chance.

But leave it out of those human moments. Physicians need to be present, to share that ‘gut instinct’ that can also be the difference between life and death. They also need to be there to explain the health care plan and comfort patients.

Will my privacy be at risk?

In a world where identity theft is so prevalent, it can seem terrifying to think that more information will be known by even more technology. It feels daunting and out of control to remember who (or what) knows your information, and endlessly futile trying to protect it. Layer on the fact that this information goes beyond one’s credit card number; this is health history – something that if leaked has the potential to cause all kinds of problems, from embarrassment to job loss, to prejudice and harassment.

With increased technology use in healthcare, laws and security will need to match its caliber. However, even with encrypted software, there will always be the risk of hacking. Healthcare information will need to be treated with the highest of security and should always be evolving to outrun the threat of hackers.

So, where does this leave us?

There are companies out there pulling it together and creating useful technologies to help patients accept, rather than fear, AI in healthcare. We can look to phone applications such as Sensely Virtual Nurse or Ping An’s Good Doctor. These patient facing apps work in tandem with healthcare professionals, triggering a connection to a human where and when necessary. They store a wealth of knowledge that can help patients in a timely manner on all things appropriate, from scheduling appointments to making minor diagnoses. When appropriate to have humans speaking with AI, they use a friendly, pleasant voice, while keeping a user-friendly platform that won’t cause patients to fear robots are taking over.

In the end, healthcare providers are going to have to gently guide patients toward being comfortable using technology in healthcare. It takes time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to be done in the meantime. Try taking a step back and remembering it takes a symbiotic relationship between physicians and technology to make the best diagnosis for patients. Putting the patient first, while working in tandem and lifting one another up where the other has shortfalls can mean the difference between life and death. Isn’t that what it’s all about in the end?

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