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How artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the patient experience in healthcare

Posted September 20, 2017

Anyone who has ever had a major surgery, dealt with a chronic illness or just wanted answers to basic medical questions, knows that the patient experience is not always an easy or streamlined one.

Privacy laws, overburdened institutions and underfunded research are just some of the issues facing healthcare organizations looking to simplify the process of delivering or receiving care through technology. Fortunately, artificial intelligence (AI) may change that — and it may be sooner than imagined. A recent study by Markets and Markets estimated that AI in healthcare will be worth nearly $8 billion by 2022.

The potential for AI’s role in improving the patient experience is helping to drive innovation, enabling healthcare companies and research institutions to develop cutting-edge ways of solving some of the most cumbersome problems facing the industry today.

How AI and smart devices will affect patient experiences

On the surface, AI’s ability to analyze and learn from troves of data, then draw predictions, appears to be a natural benefit for hospitals. One of the greatest advantages, however, actually lies outside the institution’s walls with the improvement of treatment outcomes. The growing popularity and acceptance of smart devices, such as wearables and mobile health apps, has led to the kind of data collection that lets AI — specifically machine learning — shine.

For example, PeerWell is a company which uses AI to improve the outcomes of total joint replacement surgeries before a patient ever sets foot in a hospital. “Our goal is to optimize [patient] health before they have surgery, so that they have reduced risk throughout the procedure, [and] faster recovery times,” says Manish Shah, the CEO of PeerWell.

Through the PeerWell app, patients receive customized daily lessons and tasks which require them to input their results directly into the app. The machine learning algorithm then makes adjustments to their pre-and post-recovery plans based on the findings. The AI can also study patient’s surgical results and recommend further action for better outcomes.

Medical apps like PeerWell can help people take more of a proactive role in their own health. “It’s that companion that’s saying, ‘OK, here’s some things you can do today that’s going to help you have a good outcome.’ That’s driving the interest of the patient to be this active participant in the procedure itself,” says Shah.

Diagnosing common ailments

While there are many condition-specific applications for AI, such as diabetes management, palliative care and congenital heart disease, AI offers solutions for more general health issues as well. “There’s a huge turn now in personalized consumer-based healthcare where patients are going to be able to do most of the things that doctors can do on demand,” says Dean Sawyer, CEO of Sentrian, a company that uses biometric devices to monitor chronic diseases and predict hospitalization.

Self-diagnosis technologies, for example, could change the game for patients and providers. In 2017, participants in the Qualcomm Xprize contest produced a prototype of a real-life Tricorder, based on a once-fictional diagnostic device used in Star Trek. At the time of its competition reveal, the device could diagnose 34 conditions, including stroke, tuberculosis and Hepatitis A.

To understand how a device like that might work in practice, imagine a patient has a suspicious mole. They could take a picture of it and use a diagnostic AI — which has studied millions of photos of moles — to learn if it’s benign or requires further medical consultation.

How customer service will adapt to AI

The growth of artificial intelligence might imply a future of automated interactions, but many experts believe the patient experience will simply evolve to encompass a more high-tech, high-touch approach. “It won’t necessarily be the patient calling the contact center, but the call center calling the patient based on the information from the AI,” says Sawyer. For example, the AI may be passively monitoring the health of the patient and determine that the patient is pre-diabetic. A health coach might then reach out to the patient to help them understand this new diagnosis and how to manage it, Sawyer adds.

Indeed, rather than automating and dehumanizing healthcare, AI will inform richer and more personalized interactions between patients, nurse practitioners and others staffing health phone lines, says Prashanth Kini, vice-president and head of product at Ayasdi.

But in the best-case scenario, technology can help determine which interactions are most important, and what can be automated. Kini sees the role of chatbots expanding with the growth of AI. “[Technologies like] chatbots will undoubtedly play a big part in facilitating self-service interactions with patients,”he predicts. “AI will be baked into every patient interaction, from chatbots on medical sites, to population management care protocols that prompt, aid and direct behavior, to integration with digital assistants for scheduling of follow-up appointments,” Kini says.

The road ahead

Currently many of the AI healthcare applications are semi-passive, requiring customers to actively input data into a program or app, but this approach will change in the near future. As Sentrian CEO Sawyer puts it, technology will become so advanced that patients won’t have to do much at all to have their health continuously monitored. “They will have wearable sensors on their body, in their body, in their bloodstream, in their car, in their bathroom, in their house,” he says.

The concept of AI in healthcare may still seem like a novelty to many, but as Jonathan Symonds, CMO of Ayasdi, concludes, it’s just a matter of time beforepatients become accustomed to — and begin to demand — the kind of high-tech, high-touch healthcare service AI can help to provide. “AI will become so ubiquitous that it will essentially become invisible and, as a result, will permeate all of the applications and devices that we engage with both inside and outside the hospital,” he says. The AI revolution in healthcare is coming, and it is coming to a device – and a contact center – near you.

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