• Ben Chadwick

Medicine’s Bright Future


Our lives, year after year, have become more and more integrated with technology. We’re more reliant now on our mobile devices than would have seemed possible back in 2007 when the first iPhone was released. Of course, this break-neck speed digital revolution we’re going through has its benefits: making communication far easier, for example, and allowing us to watch any show or listen to any song at the click of a button. However, some have pointed to worrying signs and questioned where this is all leading. We’ve gone from smartphones to smart TVs, and soon, to self-driving cars. What happens when the computers get “smarter” than us? Will robots take all the jobs? Will an infinitely intelligent computer program be calling all the shots? Are the nightmares like Terminator going to come to life, and will artificial intelligence quash us out like a bug?

Such scenarios make good science fiction, but they aren’t anything like what’s actually going to happen to our lives in the coming decades. Artificial intelligence is being developed and harnessed by industries to improve society in ways that may be difficult to imagine at this point in time. Indeed, one of the areas poised to benefit the most from artificial intelligence is medicine.

Dr. Bertalan Meskó, PhD, the Director of The Medical Futurist Institute, has dubbed artificial intelligence as the “stethoscope of the 21st century” (Futurism). No one can predict exactly how artificial intelligence will play out in medicine, but there will undoubtedly be a sizeable impact. Fears that technological improvements will devour jobs have existed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and while many jobs have indeed gone obsolete, advanced technology has created additional jobs and roles for humans (Allen). AI’s role in the foreseeable future is to help doctors, not replace them.

We’re seeing the genesis of this now at state-of-the-art medical facilities. The John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England is one such place. One of the things that AI has helped develop is image analysis--its ability to scan a picture and identify the problem has become increasingly helpful in radiology. A program, which was created at this hospital, has bested doctors more than 80% of the time at identifying heart disease (Futurism). As this technology gets even more reliable, we could have, say, an app on our phones that could identify lesions from a skin image, or retinopathy with a picture of one’s eye (“Artificial Intelligence in Medicine | The Top 4 Applications.”). This would democratize health services, making them cheaper for everyone to access. It would also lessen the financial burden that medicine puts on the world-wide economy as a whole.

The advantage of a computer analyzing images and making diagnoses is hard to overstate. Where a radiologist might have seen thousands of cases in their career, a computer can draw upon literally every case in the database, and use that to make ultra-informed, ultra-accurate decisions. As these types of innovations continue, however, widespread fears have emerged that there will be massive job losses in the field of radiology. Dr. John D. Banja, of Emory University, says to the “hype-ologist” fear mongers: not so fast. He rejects “that stereotype that all [radiologists] do is sit in a hermetic cell and read images all day long… AI only takes over a sliver of the job functions of the everyday routine” (Health Imaging). Computers won’t be able to do the work of a radiologist all by themselves. They’ll perform the painstaking work of poring over a picture very quickly, allowing a human professional to interpret, and decide how to act upon, whatever the AI notices as a potential problem (“Artificial Intelligence in Medicine | The Top 4 Applications.”).

Big Data has the potential to aid in projects other than just image-based diagnoses. As we continue to progress in the field of genome sequencing, AI is increasingly targeting care to individual patients by using their genetic information. This allows for personalized analyses of ailments and unique recommendations (Saxena). The Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, has started on that path, using genetic information to analyze tumors, and provide a better basis for treatment than merely confirming its location (Saxena).

Robotic surgery is also gaining ground. There already exists robot surgeons, such as the da Vinci Xi, belonging to UC San Diego Health (Bowden). It is an apparatus with four arms which end in narrow tubes with cameras and fingers at the end (Bowden). The surgeon controlling it can view what’s going on through a screen and make superhumanly dexterous incisions. This is among the best of what is in use right now, and robot surgeons are only going to get faster and more precise. Google has been reading the writing on the wall, and on March 2015, entered into a “strategic collaboration” with Ethicon, a medical technology company. They are in the Johnson & Johnson family of companies, which released a statement that the partnership’s goal is to develop “minimally invasive surgery” while “minimizing trauma and scarring, enabling accelerated post-surgical healing” (Content Lab). The future will see far safer and less disruptive procedures.

As AI gets smarter and more data is accumulated, WebMD’s notoriously overzealous diagnoses will become a thing of the past, and we will have apps on our phones that can perform preliminary tests with our heart rate and other basic metrics. We are slowly moving toward a system where health issues are diagnosed automatically based on the root cause, not based on symptoms, when it’s already progressed. Further off into the future, the implications of nano-technology in health maintenance will be massive. It may one day seem crazy that people only used to seek treatment when they already felt symptoms from a disease. By that point, our problems will be identified and nipped in the bud before they even start, with the restless vigilance, knowledge, and diagnostic ability of AI.

These possibilities are not to be taken as signs that the medical profession will fade in importance, and medical students left jobless. If anything, what AI has the power to do is free physicians from mundane diagnoses and trivial tasks like paperwork and billing, and give them more time to deliver personalized patient care, using the insights of AI to do so. In every way, the upcoming developments in medicine foreshadow an age of better patient-doctor connections and more healthy people.

References

Allen, Katie. “Technology Has Created More Jobs than It Has Destroyed, Says 140 Years of Data.” The Guardian, 18 Aug. 2015. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/aug/17/technology-created-more-jobs-than-destroyed-140-years-data-census.

“Artificial Intelligence in Medicine | The Top 4 Applications.” Accessed November 19, 2019. https://www.datarevenue.com/en-blog/artificial-intelligence-in-medicine.

Bowden, Mark. “The Man Who Saw Inside Himself.” The Atlantic, February 6, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/larry-smarr-the-man-who-saw-inside-himself/550883/.

Content Lab - U.S. “Johnson & Johnson Announces Definitive Agreement To Collaborate With Google To Advance Surgical Robotics | Johnson & Johnson.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://www.jnj.com/media-center/press-releases/johnson-johnson-announces-definitive-agreement-to-collaborate-with-google-to-advance-surgical-robotics.

Saxena, Asha. “The Role of Big Data Analytics and AI in the Future of Healthcare.” DATAVERSITY (blog), July 1, 2019. https://www.dataversity.net/the-role-of-big-data-analytics-and-ai-in-the-future-of-healthcare/.

Health Imaging. “Upcoming Radiology Podcast Challenges Imaging Experts to Step up and Question the Negative AI Hype.” Accessed November 19, 2019. https://www.healthimaging.com/topics/artificial-intelligence/radiologists-ethical-ai-key-successful-future.

Futurism. “Your Future Doctor May Not Be Human. This Is the Rise of AI in Medicine.” Accessed November 18, 2019. https://futurism.com/ai-medicine-doctor.

Image Link: https://unsplash.com/photos/iwzaTMpBD7Q


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