Can Artificial Intelligence Productively Impact the Patient Journey?

by PrimeAccess

By Carla Harbrink, VP, Group Account Director at Prime Access  

Screenshot 2015-12-08 13.45.44A recent article in The New York Times highlights the ongoing advancements being made in artificial intelligence (AI), focusing primarily on the ways these advancements have begun creating more personalized online search capabilities that could benefit both consumers and marketers. The generally optimistic outlook of the article, however, takes a turn for the worse when it considers current applications of AI within the healthcare sector. Quoting researcher Muhammad Mamdani, who said that “patterns involving specific patients are still hard to establish,” the article ultimately concludes that “deploying AI in medicine is still a long way off.”

This pessimism is misleading, however, as it assumes that meaningful AI-driven healthcare technologies are strictly objects of the future instead of options in the here and now. One of the fundamental problems with the way this article assesses healthcare-oriented AI technology is the standard it sets: how well a technology can “look at a patient’s vital signs and predict 30 minutes ahead of time the onset of sepsis.”

While it is true that this type of miracle-working detection device may still be ways off, there are a number of other metrics and factors just as important to an individual’s patient journey that can be effectively addressed by technologies already on the market. In fact, by tapping into today’s wide range of healthcare-related technologies and apps—enhanced by increasingly powerful AI—it is now possible for those working in the healthcare space to use personal technologies and devices to make significant improvements in patients’ lives.

The primary model driving the way that marketing agencies and other professionals think about the healthcare industry is that of the “patient journey.” And while this model may give us some insight into what patients actually go through, marketing supervisor Megan Hillen has voiced concern that it also fails to consider the “incredibly rich emotional, behavioral and cultural factors that are inherent to a person battling a disease.” This is important, she argues, because “such factors are most often the keys to innovative solutions that could improve their lives.”

To address this shortcoming, Hillen proposes that those working in the healthcare space stop thinking “of patients as consumers before we think of them as humans,” and focus instead on addressing the uniqueness of each patient’s individual journey. Fortunately, and despite what The New York Times may have reported, there are already a number of AI-driven technologies on the market capable of doing precisely that.

As an example, consider the typical patient journey of a person with diabetes. According to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center diabetes patients travel along several paths at once as they work with their healthcare team, learn about diabetes and self-management, receive recommended care and tests, and take steps in their day-to-day lives to keep their diabetes under control.

This map provides a very general sense of what living with diabetes looks like, but it fails to account for individual variables such as age, body size, exercise routines, diet, and the day to day differences in an individual’s life—the same person might need to approach their condition in slightly different ways based on whether they’re going hiking one day or staying in and watching movies the next.

In order to deliver the highly individualized treatment diabetes patients truly need, recent advancements in AI have catalyzed the creation of healthcare technologies and apps that can empower diabetics to customize their treatment to their individual needs. Earlier this year, “a virtual nurse platform for patient engagement and chronic disease monitoring” called Sense.ly partnered with MindMeld, a company that builds “AI-powered voice-driven apps.” Together, these two companies have begun to “build customized virtual assistant applications for the healthcare industry.”

Likewise, in September, the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) teamed up with AI researchers to create a technology that can analyze images of diabetics’ retinas in order to predict the onset of diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that can lead to blindness. By detecting the early signs of diabetic retinopathy this new AI application helps minimize the negative impact of traditional screening methods, which require numerous check-ups and can be costly and time consuming for patients and caregivers alike.

The types of technologies developed by groups like Sense.ly, MindMeld, CHCF, and many others put AI to work in ways that could dramatically improve lives of a people with diabetes. The number of appointments with doctors and specialists a patient has to keep, as well as the stress of regular blood monitoring, could all be reduced as these apps take over the bulk of gathering, analyzing, and reporting vital data. Similarly, diabetes patients no longer have to spend time and effort worrying about and monitoring for complications like diabetic retinopathy since AI would allow computers to do the huge majority of that work as well. In the end, all of this helps create a patient journey that is more flexible, manageable, and customizable.

By recognizing and utilizing the power of AI-supported technologies and apps already on the market, professionals working in the healthcare space—including marketers, administrators, doctors, and nurses—can enable patients to become more active and empowered participants in their patient journeys. And as anyone with experience in healthcare knows, an empowered patient tends to be a healthier patient.

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