There's a quiet revolution going on in medicine. It's driven by artificial intelligence, but paradoxically, new technology may put a more human face on healthcare.
AI's usefulness in healthcare ranges far and wide.
Artificial intelligence is software that can process massive amounts of information and learn over time, arriving at decisions with striking accuracy and efficiency. It offers greater accuracy in diagnosis, exponentially faster genome sequencing, the mining of medical literature and patient records at breathtaking speed, a dramatic reduction in administrative bureaucracy, personalized medicine, and even the democratization of healthcare.
The algorithms that bring these advantages won't replace doctors; rather, by offloading some of the most time-consuming tasks in healthcare, providers will be able to focus on personal interactions with patients—listening, empathizing, educating and generally putting the care back in healthcare. The relationship can focus on the alleviation of suffering, both the physical and emotional kind.
Challenges of Getting AI Up and Running
The AI revolution, still in its early phase in medicine, is already spurring some amazing advances, despite the fact that some experts say it has been overhyped. IBM's Watson Health program is a case in point. IBM capitalized on Watson's ability to process natural language by designing algorithms that devour data like medical articles and analyze images like MRIs and medical slides. The algorithms help diagnose diseases and recommend treatment strategies.
But Technology Review reported that a heavily hyped partnership with the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston fell apart in 2017 because of a lack of data in the proper format. The data existed, just not in a way that the voraciously data-hungry AI could use to train itself.
The hiccup certainly hasn't dampened the enthusiasm for medical AI among other tech giants, including Google and Apple, both of which have invested billions in their own healthcare projects. At this point, the main challenge is the need for algorithms to interpret a huge diversity of data mined from medical records. This can include everything from CT scans, MRIs, electrocardiograms, x-rays, and medical slides, to millions of pages of medical literature, physician's notes, and patient histories. It can even include data from implantables and wearables such as the Apple Watch and blood sugar monitors.
None of this information is in anything resembling a standard format across and even within hospitals, clinics, and diagnostic centers. Once the algorithms are trained, however, they can crunch massive amounts of data at blinding speed, with an accuracy that matches and sometimes even exceeds that of highly experienced doctors.
Genome sequencing, for example, took years to accomplish as recently as the early 2000s. The Human Genome Project, the first sequencing of the human genome, was an international effort that took 13 years to complete. In April of this year, Rady Children's Institute for Genomic Medicine in San Diego used an AI-powered genome sequencing algorithm to diagnose rare genetic diseases in infants in about 20 hours, according to ScienceDaily.
"Patient care will always begin and end with the doctor."
Dr. Stephen Kingsmore, the lead author of an article published in Science Translational Medicine, emphasized that even though the algorithm helped guide the treatment strategies of neonatal intensive care physicians, the doctor was still an indispensable link in the chain. "Some people call this artificial intelligence, we call it augmented intelligence," he says. "Patient care will always begin and end with the doctor."
One existing trend is helping to supply a great amount of valuable data to algorithms—the electronic health record. Initially blamed for exacerbating the already crushing workload of many physicians, the EHR is emerging as a boon for algorithms because it consolidates all of a patient's data in one record.
Examples of AI in Action Around the Globe
If you're a parent who has ever taken a child to the doctor with flulike symptoms, you know the anxiety of wondering if the symptoms signal something serious. Kang Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., the founding director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine at the University of California at San Diego, and colleagues developed an AI natural language processing model that used deep learning to analyze the EHRs of 1.3 million pediatric visits to a clinic in Guanzhou, China.
The AI identified common childhood diseases with about the same accuracy as human doctors, and it was even able to split the diagnoses into two categories—common conditions such as flu, and serious, life-threatening conditions like meningitis. Zhang has emphasized that the algorithm didn't replace the human doctor, but it did streamline the diagnostic process and could be used in a triage capacity when emergency room personnel need to prioritize the seriously ill over those suffering from common, less dangerous ailments.
AI's usefulness in healthcare ranges far and wide. In Uganda and several other African nations, AI is bringing modern diagnostics to remote villages that have no access to traditional technologies such as x-rays. The New York Times recently reported that there, doctors are using a pocket-sized, hand-held ultrasound machine that works in concert with a cell phone to image and diagnose everything from pneumonia (a common killer of children) to cancerous tumors.
The beauty of the highly portable, battery-powered device is that ultrasound images can be uploaded on computers so that physicians anywhere in the world can review them and weigh in with their advice. And the images are instantly incorporated into the patient's EHR.
Jonathan Rothberg, the founder of Butterfly Network, the Connecticut company that makes the device, told The New York Times that "Two thirds of the world's population gets no imaging at all. When you put something on a chip, the price goes down and you democratize it." The Butterfly ultrasound machine, which sells for $2,000, promises to be a game-changer in remote areas of Africa, South America, and Asia, as well as at the bedsides of patients in developed countries.
AI algorithms are rapidly emerging in healthcare across the U.S. and the world. China has become a major international player, set to surpass the U.S. this year in AI capital investment, the translation of AI research into marketable products, and even the number of often-cited research papers on AI. So far the U.S. is still the leader, but some experts describe the relationship between the U.S. and China as an AI cold war.
"The future of machine learning isn't sentient killer robots. It's longer human lives."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded its approval of medical algorithms from two in all of 2017 to about two per month throughout 2018. One of the first fields to be impacted is ophthalmology.
One algorithm, developed by the British AI company DeepMind (owned by Alphabet, the parent company of Google), instantly scans patients' retinas and is able to diagnose diabetic retinopathy without needing an ophthalmologist to interpret the scans. This means diabetics can get the test every year from their family physician without having to see a specialist. The Financial Times reported in March that the technology is now being used in clinics throughout Europe.
In Copenhagen, emergency service dispatchers are using a new voice-processing AI called Corti to analyze the conversations in emergency phone calls. The algorithm analyzes the verbal cues of callers, searches its huge database of medical information, and provides dispatchers with onscreen diagnostic information. Freddy Lippert, the CEO of EMS Copenhagen, notes that the algorithm has already saved lives by expediting accurate diagnoses in high-pressure situations where time is of the essence.
Researchers at the University of Nottingham in the UK have even developed a deep learning algorithm that predicts death more accurately than human clinicians. The algorithm incorporates data from a huge range of factors in a chronically ill population, including how many fruits and vegetables a patient eats on a daily basis. Dr. Stephen Weng, lead author of the study, published in PLOS ONE, said in a press release, "We found machine learning algorithms were significantly more accurate in predicting death than the standard prediction models developed by a human expert."
New digital technologies are allowing patients to participate in their healthcare as never before. A feature of the new Apple Watch is an app that detects cardiac arrhythmias and even produces an electrocardiogram if an abnormality is detected. The technology, approved by the FDA, is helping cardiologists monitor heart patients and design interventions for those who may be at higher risk of a cardiac event like a stroke.
If having an algorithm predict your death sends a shiver down your spine, consider that algorithms may keep you alive longer. In 2018, technology reporter Tristan Greene wrote for Medium that "…despite the unending deluge of panic-ridden articles declaring AI the path to apocalypse, we're now living in a world where algorithms save lives every day. The future of machine learning isn't sentient killer robots. It's longer human lives."
The Risks of AI Compiling Your Data
To be sure, the advent of AI-infused medical technology is not without its risks. One risk is that the use of AI wearables constantly monitoring our vital signs could turn us into a nation of hypochondriacs, racing to our doctors every time there's a blip in some vital sign. Such a development could stress an already overburdened system that suffers from, among other things, a shortage of doctors and nurses. Another risk has to do with the privacy protections on the massive repository of intimately personal information that AI will have on us.
In an article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Australian researcher Kit Huckvale and colleagues examined the handling of data by 36 smartphone apps that assisted people with either depression or smoking cessation, two areas that could lend themselves to stigmatization if they fell into the wrong hands.
Even when data isn't voluntarily shared, any digital information can be hacked. EHRs and even wearable devices share the same vulnerability as any other digital record or device. Still, the promise of AI to radically improve efficiency and accuracy in healthcare is hard to ignore.
AI Can Help Restore Humanity to Medicine
Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and author of the new book Deep Medicine, says that AI gives doctors and nurses the most precious gift of all: time.
Topol welcomes his patients' use of the Apple Watch cardiac feature and is optimistic about the ways that AI is revolutionizing medicine. He says that the watch helps doctors monitor how well medications are working and has already helped to prevent strokes. But in addition to that, AI will help bring the humanity back to a profession that has become as cold and hard as a stainless steel dissection table.
"When I graduated from medical school in the 1970s," he says, "you had a really intimate relationship with your doctor." Over the decades, he has seen that relationship steadily erode as medical organizations demanded that doctors see more and more patients within ever-shrinking time windows.
"Doctors have no time to think, to communicate. We need to restore the mission in medicine."
In addition to that, EHRs have meant that doctors and nurses are getting buried in paperwork and administrative tasks. This is no doubt one reason why a recent study by the World Health Organization showed that worldwide, about 50 percent of doctors suffer from burnout. People who are utterly exhausted make more mistakes, and medical clinicians are no different from the rest of us. Only medical mistakes have unacceptably high stakes. According to its website, Johns Hopkins University recently announced that in the U.S. alone, 250,000 people die from medical mistakes each year.
"Doctors have no time to think, to communicate," says Topol. "We need to restore the mission in medicine." AI is giving doctors more time to devote to the thing that attracted them to medicine in the first place—connecting deeply with patients.
There is a real danger at this juncture, though, that administrators aware of the time-saving aspects of AI will simply push doctors to see more patients, read more tests, and embrace an even more crushing workload.
"We can't leave it to the administrators to just make things worse," says Topol. "Now is the time for doctors to advocate for a restoration of the human touch. We need to stand up for patients and for the patient-doctor relationship."
AI could indeed be a game changer, he says, but rather than squander the huge benefits of more time, "We need a new equation going forward."
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.