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Will Anyone Notice?

By Kim Bellard October 13, 2016

There's an interesting verbal battle going on between two prominent tech venture capitalists over the future of AI in health care. Marc Andreessen asserted that Vinod Khosla "has written all these stories about how doctors are going to go away...And I think he is completely wrong."  Mr. Khosla was quick to respond:  "Maybe Mr. Andreessen should read what I think before assuming what I said about doctors going away."

It turns out that Mr. Khosla believes that AI will take away 80% of physicians' work, but not necessarily 80% of their jobs, leaving them more time to focus on the "human aspects of medical practice such as empathy and ethical choices."  That is not necessarily much different than Mr. Andreessen's prediction that "the job of a doctor shifts and becomes a higher-level, more important job that pays better as the doctor becomes augmented by smarter computers."

When AIs start replacing physicians, will we notice -- or care?

Personally, I think it is naive to expect that only 20% of physicians' jobs are at risk from AI, or that AI will lead to physicians being paid even more.  The future may be closer than we realize, and "virtual visits" -- telehealth -- may illustrate why.

Recently, Fortune reported that over half of Kaiser Permanente's patient visits were done virtually, via smartphones, videoconferencing, kiosks, etc.  That's over 50 million such visits annually.  

Sherpaa, a health start-up that is trying to replace fee-for-service, in-person doctor visits with virtual visits.  Available with a $40 monthly membership fee, the visits are delivered via their app, tests or emails.  Their physicians can order lab work, prescribe, and make referrals if needed.

How many people would notice if virtual visits were with an AI, not an actual physician?  

Companies in every industry are racing to create chatbots, using AI to provide human-like interactions without humans.  And health care bots are on the way.

Not everyone is convinced we're there yet.  A new study did a direct comparison of human physicians versus 23 commonly used symptom checkers to test diagnostic accuracy, and found that the latter's performance was "clearly inferior."  The symptom checkers listed the correct diagnosis in their top 3 possibilities 51% of the time, versus 84% for humans.  

However, consider the symptom-checkers may be the most commonly used, but may not have been the most state-of-the-art.  And the real test is how the best of those trackers did against the average human physician. Humans still got the diagnosis wrong is at least 16% of the cases.  They're not likely to get much better (at least, not without AI assistance).  AIs, on the other hand, are only going to get better.  

It used to be that physicians were sure that their patients would always rather wait in order to see them in their offices, until retail clinics proved them wrong.  It used to be that physicians were sure patients would always rather see them in person rather than use a virtual visit (possibly with another physician), until telehealth proved them wrong.  And it still is true that most physicians are sure that patients prefer them to AI, but they may soon be proved wrong about that too.

AI is going to play a major role in health care.  Rather using physicians to focus more on empathy and ethical issues, as Mr.  Khosla suggested (or paying them more for it, as Mr. Andreessen suggested), we might be better off using nurses and ethicists, respectively, for those purposes.  So what will physicians do?

The hardest part of using AI in health care may not be developing the AI, but in figuring out what the uniquely human role in providing health care is.

This post is an abridged version of the posting in Kim Bellard’s blogsite. Click here to read the full posting

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