You Could Be Diagnosed by Artificial Intelligence

Bedside manner might not matter: New technology is being tested to tell you what ails you

When you’re sick and need to know what’s wrong, an app on your phone may soon be all it takes to get an accurate diagnosis.

That’s what London-based Babylon Health, a private company working in artificial intelligence for the medical field, hopes will become a reality. The group is working with the accident and emergency (A&E) services system to test-market the app in parts of London.

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“Patients key in their symptoms, with artificial intelligence used to assess the urgency of each case, and determine whether users should be told to go to A&E, a pharmacy or tuck up at home,” The Telegraph reported.

The company’s founder, Dr. Ali Parsa, said the point isn’t to replace doctors. The idea instead is to work in tandem so that the organization can “focus on treating rather than diagnosing diseases.”

The need for doctors won’t go away with technology like this, said one physician.

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“There are 300 million pieces of knowledge that we have collected. No human brain can [know all] that. This is the largest amount of primary care clinical semantic knowledge in the world that is held by any computer, as far as we know,” said Parsi.

While the system is still a work in progress, a panel of physicians weighing the options of the software say that so far, diagnosis by the AI program is faster and more accurate than the diagnoses by doctors who assess cases.

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Convenience and patient compliance appear to be two of the biggest benefits of a system like this, said Meghan Alonso, a medical device entrepreneur and podcaster in California.

“Getting in to see a health care provider is a barrier to people because they’ve got to make an appointment, go to the appointment, wait usually a while to see the provider, and then finally see the provider. If it’s something simple they know they go through often, a bot can be quick and easy,” she told LifeZette.

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Accuracy of diagnosis would be her biggest concern, along with the absence of an in-person meeting to gain human emotional cues or notice other things that might be occurring with patients.

“This technology would be better used for simple things and in conjunction with the care of an actual health care provider rather than replacing the provider,” said Alonso. “Just as we don’t have self-driving cars everywhere but the technology is there, something about an actual human making decisions seems more effective than a bot.”

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Dr. Ramin Oskoui, a Washington, D.C.-based cardiologist and a regular contributor to LifeZette, agreed the need for doctors won’t go away with technology like this. Not everyone can sit down in front of a computer when they’re sick or need medical advice and answer a bunch of questions.

But for a lot of common problems, a good algorithm plus some AI may be very reliable, he said. In a lot of cases, AI is already backing up the decisions and diagnosis doctors make, he added.

“Keep an open mind about the possibility,” said Oskoui. “We’d be foolhardy to assume that everything that occurs after our training is not worth being open to, even though it may be more challenging. I think there are probably groups of physicians — in ER, primary care — that might benefit and find this particularly helpful.”

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