An AI-enabled health coach may be in your future

Healthcare is quickly leveraging advances in cognitive technologies, machine learning and artificial intelligence, especially in the areas of research, diagnostics, treatment and patient outcomes.

These developments in technologies can help improve cost-effectiveness, customer service and population health, and are explored in depth in the whitepaper: "Cognitive technologies for health plans: Using artificial intelligence to meet new market demands."

With the cognitive age clearly upon us, some fear that smart machines will soon replace skilled healthcare practitioners. Fear not, there's still a critical place for humans. Smart machines will augment human thinking and specialized skill sets. This should be welcome news to patients, who could see their quality of healthcare improve.

For example, I am convinced that the future of patient health will include AI health coaches that will engage me like the computer in the movie "HER," which was able to relate and integrate itself into the main character's life so completely that he fell in love with her. Picture Scarlett Johansson or George Clooney whispering suggestions to keep your health on track, such as reminding you not just which medications you forgot to take, but also how important it is to take your medication daily.

This has the potential for significant adoption. Patients realize that their electronic devices help them with their day-to-day lives, including their healthcare consumer products, such as fitness bands. As a consumer, I am concerned with the "pain points" of healthcare, including my interactions with healthcare professionals, convenience, utility and price. A health coach that is neither disruptive nor burdensome to my world, and highly personalized to me, is the ultimate expression of a consumer experience. An AI avatar can provide this.

This is already starting to happen today. The applications of cognitive computing are about to assemble themselves into solutions that will march rapidly towards my best friend, my AI health advisor. For example, the application Lark is now on the market as a health coach that chats with you on the phone. It chats using advanced learning and presents information against the context of your daily experience. You don't pick from a complex list of foods to represent your lunch. You enter something in free text, just as you would text a friend.

The benefits of AI-enabled healthcare also impact professionals. Machine learning is providing extensions to physicians' ability to interpret images with viewing diagnostics such as medical imaging. Enlitic is using advanced machine learning to find signals in medical images that radiologists might miss. Unlike machines, the human mind cannot effectively look across all images of all patients and identify critical patterns. Welltok and Watson Health are also heavily investing in the generation of cognitive applications, with early interest in high stakes decisions, such as helping to review protocol selection options for oncologists. The race is on to make an advisor that patients will welcome into their world.

For AI health coaches to reach mass adoption, there are roadblocks concerning ethics, risk and compliance that need to be addressed. But there are lessons we can learn from how the banking industry is using cognitive computing to overcome this issue. How does a global bank determine that their thousands of locations are in compliance with global, regional and local legal requirements regarding operating procedures? They either need to have an army of people reading every legal document and every internal policy for discrepancies, or they have to train a cognitive assistant to help highlight where potential gaps occur, and then use humans to confirm gaps and figure out how to remediate issues. Cognitive computing will also take center stage for healthcare, helping to address issues around privacy and compliance with HIPAA requirements. These compliance rules will be embedded into the AI that communicates with patients about their health. As a result, reporting of adverse events and dangerous health situations can be streamlined, getting the information to qualified professionals who can mitigate issues quickly.

The AI health coach is coming soon. To those working in the provider, pharmacy or consumer wearables markets, get prepared to adapt to a new world where a few blue ribbon AIs dominate the patient's spare attention. In that world, your own products and services must integrate to generate artificial mindshare in the AI health coaches. I believe that we will see the pieces of this trend converging over the next three years – with winners emerging in less than seven.

For more on machine and cognitive trends that are shaping the healthcare industry of the future, read Deloitte's Analytics Trends 2016.

Note: Parts of this article were excerpted from a previous published blog that looks at the issue in greater detail, "Implications for the rise of AI in health care and patient engagement."

Dan Housman is a software veteran with a demonstrated track record of providing valuable and innovative decision support systems to large, complex organizations. He leads ConvergeHEALTH's product innovation efforts with a focus on translational research, bioinformatics and innovative approaches to data capture, analysis and reporting for clinical quality and performance improvement.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within these guest posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of Becker's Hospital Review/Becker's Healthcare. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.

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