Artificial IntelligenceScience & Tech

When Your Phone Can Stand in For Your Doctor: AI in Healthcare

How important do you think it is to visit your doctor regularly? Are there certain symptoms that you would rather explain to your doctor person, or would you feel comfortable getting the information you need by simply messaging a medical professional from your phone? In just the past few years, there have been rapid advancements in artificial intelligence for healthcare, and a trip to your doctor’s office is not always required to meet your needs.

There are several apps that allow patients to communicate with healthcare professionals and have access to their medical records. Akira, for example, is a Canadian healthcare app that allows patients to communicate with doctors and nurse practitioners in Ontario via text or video chat. By using Akira, patients can get lab requisitions via email or send them directly to a clinic of their choice and receive sick notes and referrals to specialists. Akira’s medical professionals can even renew existing prescriptions and prescribe new ones, and patients can get their prescription medication delivered directly to their homes for free through one of Akira’s partner pharmacies. In addition, Akira users can view their doctor’s clinical notes and track their prescriptions and lab results, as well as review their previous conversations. However, there are some actions that AI like Akira can’t perform because they require a doctor to manually carry out the task. Patients cannot receive prescriptions for medical marijuana or controlled substances through Akira, nor can they get doctors and nurses to fill out disability, insurance claims, or WSIB forms through Akira. Patients should not use Akira in medical emergencies, or as their most responsible physician while dealing with chronic disease, cancer or other complex care decisions. Akira can provide help with these conditions, but they should not be used as a replacement for specialists or their primary care doctor.

When Your Phone Can Stand in For Your Doctor: AI in Healthcare

Image Source: Akira

Apps like Akira are certainly convenient for users, but there are pros and cons to skipping a date with your doctor, even when you’re simply renewing a prescription or getting a sick note. I sat down with family physician Dr. Angelo Zizzo to get his take on AI in the healthcare system, and how it affects both patients and doctors. One of his concerns about patients communicating with doctors through AI software is that the doctor cannot gauge the patient’s hesitations or emotional responses while speaking with them, which could result in the doctor failing to uncover important health or emotional issues.

“Sometimes doctors ask patients a question that triggers an emotional response,” Dr. Zizzo said. “I call this the ‘three Kleenex question’. If I ask a question and the patient hesitates to answer, I know that the next question I ask might cause an emotional response, and we could end up with a different answer. For example, if I ask a patient if they could be pregnant and they hesitate and say “um… no”, I will ask ‘Are you worried about being pregnant?’ and find that the patient gets emotional and there are underlying issues: maybe they have been trying to get pregnant but are having problems, or they don’t want to be pregnant and are afraid that they are.”

“The same thing may happen with questions like ‘Are you going to the bathroom every day?’ When a patient is sure, there is a fast response; if they need to think about it, then there is a problem. It’s up to the doctor to act on the patient’s hesitancy. Artificial intelligence may miss the significance of a response, be it positive or negative, because the doctor may only be able to tell by the patient’s tone.”

When Your Phone Can Stand in For Your Doctor: AI in Healthcare

Image Source: Gold Foundation

Dr. Zizzo elaborated that while the patient’s emotional response may sometimes not be interpreted through a screen, AI extremely useful in other areas such as preventing errors or accessing records.

“Computers will flag allergies and incompatible prescriptions when doctors might not catch it,” he says. For instance, when a doctor who uses electronic records enters a patient’s medical chart and adds a prescription for a new medication, it will recognize if that medication should not be combined with a medication the patient is currently taking. In this case, a notification alerts the doctor of the potentially dangerous combination.

“It’s useful for diabetic patients,” Dr. Zizzo continued. “It will tell the doctor if the patient’s diabetes is under ‘good control’ or not based on past numbers. It also lets doctors know how many years it’s been since the patient’s last visit.” Electronic records (eRecords) stored on computers can facilitate doctors’ access to information, diagnosis, treatment, and patient outcomes. They are used to provide patients with better and safer care.

Dr. Zizzo added that he regularly attends “rounds”, educational presentations for practicing doctors that cover a variety of healthcare topics. Even after practicing for decades, doctors attend rounds to further their knowledge. “Like humans, computers need to be reprogrammed,” Dr. Zizzo commented.

When Your Phone Can Stand in For Your Doctor: AI in Healthcare

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

In closing, artificial intelligence can be used as a substitute for visiting your doctor when you’re renewing a prescription or requesting a sick note. But AI in healthcare doesn’t provide the same emotional intelligence as doctors do, which could cause important issues to go unnoticed. Virtual healthcare apps like Akira are perfectly safe to use, but if you need care for a chronic illness or have more severe concerns, remember to visit your primary care physician.


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