It’s no secret that healthcare in the United States is in crisis. With skyrocketing costs, dysfunctional health coverage, and overburdened doctors, hospitals, and staff, it’s hardly surprising that that only 39% of patients have ‘a great deal’ of confidence in the medical system. This disparity between patients and doctors could have lasting impact on our collective health (as recent resurgences in measles and other preventable diseases has shown). But artificial intelligence’s significant impact on the healthcare industry, and its potential for more, may just be the tool we need to reconcile the patient experience.
Machine learning has already gained a foothold in modern medicine as a powerful tool to help doctors diagnose, perform medical procedures, and prescribe medication more quickly and with greater accuracy. The boon for the healthcare economy is enormous, with growth expected to reach $6.6 billion by 2021 and an estimated $150 billion in annual savings by 2026 in the United States alone. For patients who fear that any unforeseen medical bill could spell bankruptcy, this should come as somewhat of a reprieve. But saving money alone may not be enough to build patient confidence; patient-doctor interaction suffers from critical symptoms as well.
With their doctors spending more of their time doing paperwork than interfacing with them, patients often feel neglected or outright ignored in the doctor’s office. With little knowledge shared between the two to build up a relationship, patient perception of doctors has become increasingly negative. Of course, doctors have their reasons, although they do little to appease anxious patients: decreased insurance payouts means that doctors, particularly specialists, need to take on as many patients as possible within increasingly shorter time spans in order to make enough money to run their offices. This, coupled with increasing need to spend more than “two-thirds of their time doing paperwork” on administrative tasks, including documentation, follow-up, and dealing with insurance companies and several other layers of bureaucracy. This results in interacting more with paperwork than patient and lead to job dissatisfaction that can translate in doctor-patient interactions. Research suggests that an important correlation may exist between a patient’s satisfaction and the professional satisfaction of their physicians. By improving physician satisfaction, frustration with the medical process may finally be curable.
AI optimization has already made tremendous headway in terms of how quickly and accurately physicians can make diagnoses. But if AI could also make a dent in the paperwork problem, physicians could be afforded the time to take on more patients every week and spend more than the current average of 22 minutes per encounter with their existing patients.
Additionally, AI technology that already exists could expedite the diagnostic progress even further, to allow doctors to forge the deeper connections their patients often long for. Wearables like the Apple Watch and FitBit already track metrics such as heartbeat and steps taken per day. Even cell phones have apps that can track the amount of REM sleep you achieve each night. If the technology continues to develop in this way, including the ability to track other metrics such as body temperature or even blood content levels, wearables can potentially work like a car’s computer, tracking and keeping record of irregularities in our bodies for doctors to easily access later. These recorded symptoms could further lend confidence in patients’ perception of their own health and help them put to words their ambiguous understanding of their symptoms – the end of the era of “Well Doctor, I had this weird, kinda stabby pain in my stomach,” and the beginning of accurately described symptoms and expedited diagnoses.
AI in healthcare is also poised to impact how patients choose their physicians. Studies have shown while popular perception of AI is mixed, hope for AI in healthcare continues to trend positively, particularly the concept of systems that provide patient care. With that knowledge in hand, rebuilding patient trust in their doctors could be made easier by utilizing AI in the practice. This would give forward-thinking doctors a reputation for using efficient, accurate, and cutting-edge technology, propelling them ahead of their peers.
Ultimately, there is no substitute for doctors. AI has the capacity to suggest a diagnosis with accuracy, but doctors have the experience and a human approach, such as banter, thoughtfulness, and empathy, that cannot yet be replicated by machines. It was the loss of that human approach through our overburdened healthcare system that created the gap between doctors and their patients in the first place. By utilizing advanced AI to the best of its potential, doctors can bridge that gap with patients, and restore the patient experience to one of mutual trust, faith, and respect.