How the Human-to-Machine Bond is Transforming Health Care

The biggest problem the United States health care system faces is preventable disease. We do not have enough doctors, nurses, or health coaches to fix it.

Yes, we have a doctor and nurse shortage; however, the larger issue is that the treatment or prevention of these types of diseases requires significant behavior and lifestyle changes, which are achieved through extensive coaching, carefully timed intervention, and constant monitoring. All of these are very hands-on, human activities.

Even the best, most attentive health care providers simply can’t be there for a patient around the clock, to catch every bad habit or reinforce every positive behavior. Many make the argument that we need to increase federal funds and train more nurses, license more physicians, and deploy more health coaches. Yes, we need to do these things, but it’s not going to be enough. Increasingly, people are becoming more comfortable interacting with machines than they are with humans.

Traditional approaches, even if they are wildly successful, only ensure that more people get to see their doctor in a timely fashion. They don’t do anything to help doctors spend more time with each patient. It’s time to turn to technology to help us do what it does best: scale. Artificial intelligence (AI) has evolved to the point that it can significantly augment the work done by physicians, pharmacists, and health coaches.

AI-powered technologies can fill in the gaps between appointments by reminding patients to take their medications according to their schedule, influencing and rewarding behavior change at exactly the right moment, and even intervening when something in the treatment plan is off.1

AI is capable of learning and growing with a patient too, so it can adapt and adjust based on the patient’s individual needs, schedule, and disease. The preventable disease problem we’re facing in health care today can be solved by a deepening relationship between humans and AI. If this sounds futuristic, it is… sort of.

The technology already exists, and is deployed in other arenas, such as finance and business intelligence. But in health care, there’s a human and psychological barrier: can we trust AI with our health? Our health data?

In a recent study conducted by Next IT Healthcare and Kaiser Permanente, researchers found that patients are increasingly comfortable with, and trusting of, AI-driven virtual health assistant (VHA). In fact, many patients who interacted with AI-driven technology in a doctor’s office were inclined to disclose more information than they would otherwise tell their doctors. What does this new human-to-machine bond make possible for our health care system?

The implications for health care are profound.

Better data
When patients interact with a VHA on their phone, desktop, or tablet, human caregivers get new context that has heretofore been very difficult to obtain, particularly in real-time. VHAs are perhaps the best collection mechanism for data addressing patient medication questions, treatment plan adherence, and accessing how patients are feeling day-to-day.

Consider what happens when we can correlate this data with other patient-generated data, such as data from wearables, home monitors, scales, and environmental sensors. Health care providers can use this data to better understand when to intervene, to predict and prevent relapses, and to create a custom treatment plan specific to a patient’s routine, that also evolves with the patient. The value of high-fidelity and real-time patient-generated data is immense, and will be transformative.

Systemwide cost benefits Around-the-clock access to what is essentially a nurse-less hotline can reduce the burden on doctors and other care providers. They can ensure that when human interactions are needed, they are as impactful as possible. Imagine a patient needs help understanding the side effects of a drug they are taking.

A VHA can walk patients through the known side effects, and identify whether they are experiencing any of those effects. If they are, the virtual health assistant can determine the severity of side effects by asking a series of questions. The technology can then triage and route the resulting information to a live health care provider, who can intervene immediately, if needed, and help patients determine if they need a trip to the emergency department, or can treat the symptoms at home.

Early detection prevents potentially costly complications while patients would otherwise be waiting for an office visit. But the technology can also reduce the occurrence of unnecessary office visits. Whether there’s a problem or not, this technology can drive efficiency. Personalized treatment “Doctor’s orders,” treatment plans, and standards of care are rooted in sound science.

But studies involving hundreds, or thousands of subjects, are rarely tailored to the individual, with instructions such as eat vegetables 3 to 4 times a day, exercise 3 to 5 days a week, take your pills twice a day for 2 weeks. Yet, adherence to these kinds of recommendations are dismal because there is no guidance on how a patient can achieve the study’s goals and why, particularly given their existing lifestyle and behaviors.

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