What do modern vacuums, navigation tools, and lawnmowers have in common with your doctor’s office? More than you might think—especially if you’re sick. Artificial intelligence (AI) has begun playing doctor.
Computers are already present in the healthcare field. They can analyze data, scan images, and make some predictions more quickly than humans can. Computers even detect some diseases and suggest possible treatments.
Until recently, computers have functioned mostly behind the scenes. Now they have begun working directly with patients. For example, in a doctor’s office, a patient may answer on a touchscreen questions normally posed by a doctor or nurse.
Researcher Albert Rizzo is developing a virtual reality character he calls “Ellie.” Ellie appears on a computer monitor. She leads a patient through opening questions. Ellie makes eye contact, nods, and uses hand gestures like a human doctor. Ellie even pauses after short answers to push a patient to say more.
“After the first or second question, you kind of forget that it’s a robot,” says Cheyenne Quilter. She is helping to test the AI program.
Ellie doesn’t diagnose or treat. Instead, human doctors use session recordings to help decide what a patient might need. “Our mission isn’t to replace human beings,” Rizzo says.
Companies like AdviNOW Medical provide traditional medical treatment using AI. At high-tech kiosks, patients use a touchscreen and an array of medical devices to answer questions, take images, and collect information such as blood pressure and lung sounds.
AdviNOW computers pass information and a suggested diagnosis to real-life physicians. Sometimes a doctor uses text messages or videoconferencing to treat patients. Other times, the doctor sees patients at a handful of drugstore clinics.
So far, AdviNOW patients report reduced wait times, improved convenience, and consistent care. But there are limits to what AI can do. Even the most advanced software can’t muster compassion or use common sense.
Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Isaac Kohane sees AI’s limits. He says computers can’t process everything a doctor considers when deciding on treatment. That might include an individual’s pain tolerance or desire to live a little longer to attend a special event.
“Good doctors are the ones who understand us and our goals as human beings,” he says.
Darren Dworkin of California’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center agrees that AI doesn’t replace doctors. He calls AI in medicine “basically that little tap on the shoulder . . . of, ‘Hey, perhaps you should look over here.’”
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