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How AI is Transforming Health Care

Jan. 2, 2020 -- Matthew Might’s son Bertrand was born with a devastating, ultra-rare genetic disorder.

Now 12, Bertrand has vibrant eyes, a quick smile, and a love of dolphins. But he nearly died last spring from a runaway infection. He can’t sit up on his own anymore, and he struggles to use his hands to play with toys. Puberty will likely wreak more havoc.

Might, who has a PhD in computer science, has been able to use his professional expertise to change the trajectory of his son’s life. With computational simulation and by digitally combing through vast amounts of data, Might discovered two therapies that have extended Bertrand’s life and improved its quality.

Similar artificial intelligence (AI) enabled Colin Hill to determine which blood cancer patients are likely to gain the most from bone marrow transplants. The company Hill runs, GNS Healthcare, found a genetic signature in some multiple myeloma patients that suggested they would benefit from a transplant. For others, the risky, painful, and expensive procedure would probably only provide false hope.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices collect reams of data on their patients—everything from blood pressure to mobility measures to genetic sequencing. Today, most of that data sits on a computer somewhere, helping no one. But that is slowly changing as computers get better at using AI to find patterns in vast amounts of data and as recording, storing, and analyzing information gets cheaper and easier.

“I think the average patient or future patient is already being touched by AI in health care. They’re just not necessarily aware of it,” says Chris Coburn, chief innovation officer for Partners HealthCare System, a hospital and physicians network based in Boston.

AI has already helped medical administrators and schedulers with billing and making better use of providers’ time—though it still drives many doctors (and patients) crazy because of the tediousness of the work and the time spent typing rather than interacting with the patient. AI remains a little further from reality when it comes to patient care, but “I could not easily name a [health] field that doesn’t have some active work as it relates to AI,” says Coburn, who mentions pathology, radiology, spinal surgery, cardiac surgery, and dermatology, among others.

Might’s and Hill’s stories are forerunners of a coming transformation that will enable the full potential of AI in medicine, they and other experts say. Such digital technology has been transforming other industries for decades—think cell phone traffic apps for commuting or GPS apps that measure weather, wind, and wave action to develop the most fuel-efficient shipping routes across oceans. Though slowed by the need for patient privacy and other factors, AI is finally making real inroads into medical care.


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