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Why AI in healthcare has not enthused many

Generative AI, which can create and analyze images, text, audio, videos and more, is increasingly making its way into healthcare, pushed by both Big Tech firms and startups alike.

Google Cloud, Google’s cloud services and products division, is collaborating with Highmark Health, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit healthcare company, on generative AI tools designed to personalize the patient intake experience. Amazon’s AWS division says it’s working with unnamed customers on a way to use generative AI to analyze medical databases for “social determinants of health.” And Microsoft Azure is helping to build a generative AI system for Providence, the not-for-profit healthcare network, to automatically triage messages to care providers sent from patients.

Prominent generative AI startups in healthcare include Ambience Healthcare, which is developing a generative AI app for clinicians; Nabla, an ambient AI assistant for practitioners; and Abridge, which creates analytics tools for medical documentation.

The broad enthusiasm for generative AI is reflected in the investments in generative AI efforts targeting healthcare. Collectively, generative AI in healthcare startups have raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital to date, and the vast majority of health investors say that generative AI has significantly influenced their investment strategies.

But both professionals and patients are mixed as to whether healthcare-focused generative AI is ready for prime time.

Generative AI might not be what people want
In a recent Deloitte survey, only about half (53%) of U.S. consumers said that they thought generative AI could improve healthcare — for example, by making it more accessible or shortening appointment wait times. Fewer than half said they expected generative AI to make medical care more affordable.

Andrew Borkowski, chief AI officer at the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ largest health system, doesn’t think that the cynicism is unwarranted. Borkowski warned that generative AI’s deployment could be premature due to its “significant” limitations — and the concerns around its efficacy.

“One of the key issues with generative AI is its inability to handle complex medical queries or emergencies,” he told TechCrunch. “Its finite knowledge base — that is, the absence of up-to-date clinical information — and lack of human expertise make it unsuitable for providing comprehensive medical advice or treatment recommendations.”

Several studies suggest there’s credence to those points.

In a paper in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, OpenAI’s generative AI chatbot, ChatGPT, which some healthcare organizations have piloted for limited use cases, was found to make errors diagnosing pediatric diseases 83% of the time. And in testing OpenAI’s GPT-4 as a diagnostic assistant, physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston observed that the model ranked the wrong diagnosis as its top answer nearly two times out of three.

Today’s generative AI also struggles with medical administrative tasks that are part and parcel of clinicians’ daily workflows. On the MedAlign benchmark to evaluate how well generative AI can perform things like summarizing patient health records and searching across notes, GPT-4 failed in 35% of cases.

OpenAI and many other generative AI vendors warn against relying on their models for medical advice. But Borkowski and others say they could do more. “Relying solely on generative AI for healthcare could lead to misdiagnoses, inappropriate treatments or even life-threatening situations,” Borkowski said.

Jan Egger, who leads AI-guided therapies at the University of Duisburg-Essen’s Institute for AI in Medicine, which studies the applications of emerging technology for patient care, shares Borkowski’s concerns. He believes that the only safe way to use generative AI in healthcare currently is under the close, watchful eye of a physician.

“The results can be completely wrong, and it’s getting harder and harder to maintain awareness of this,” Egger said. “Sure, generative AI can be used, for example, for pre-writing discharge letters. But physicians have a responsibility to check it and make the final call.”

Generative AI can perpetuate stereotypes
One particularly harmful way generative AI in healthcare can get things wrong is by perpetuating stereotypes.

In a 2023 study out of Stanford Medicine, a team of researchers tested ChatGPT and other generative AI–powered chatbots on questions about kidney function, lung capacity and skin thickness. Not only were ChatGPT’s answers frequently wrong, the co-authors found, but also answers included several reinforced long-held untrue beliefs that there are biological differences between Black and white people — untruths that are known to have led medical providers to misdiagnose health problems.

The irony is, the patients most likely to be discriminated against by generative AI for healthcare are also those most likely to use it.

People who lack healthcare coverage — people of color, by and large, according to a KFF study — are more willing to try generative AI for things like finding a doctor or mental health support, the Deloitte survey showed. If the AI’s recommendations are marred by bias, it could exacerbate inequalities in treatment.

However, some experts argue that generative AI is improving in this regard.

In a Microsoft study published in late 2023, researchers said they achieved 90.2% accuracy on four challenging medical benchmarks using GPT-4. Vanilla GPT-4 couldn’t reach this score. But, the researchers say, through prompt engineering — designing prompts for GPT-4 to produce certain outputs — they were able to boost the model’s score by up to 16.2 percentage points. (Microsoft, it’s worth noting, is a major investor in OpenAI.)

Beyond chatbots
But asking a chatbot a question isn’t the only thing generative AI is good for. Some researchers say that medical imaging could benefit greatly from the power of generative AI.

In July, a group of scientists unveiled a system called complementarity-driven deferral to clinical workflow (CoDoC), in a study published in Nature. The system is designed to figure out when medical imaging specialists should rely on AI for diagnoses versus traditional techniques. CoDoC did better than specialists while reducing clinical workflows by 66%, according to the co-authors.

In November, a Chinese research team demoed Panda, an AI model used to detect potential pancreatic lesions in X-rays. A study showed Panda to be highly accurate in classifying these lesions, which are often detected too late for surgical intervention.

Indeed, Arun Thirunavukarasu, a clinical research fellow at the University of Oxford, said there’s “nothing unique” about generative AI precluding its deployment in healthcare settings.

“More mundane applications of generative AI technology are feasible in the short- and mid-term, and include text correction, automatic documentation of notes and letters and improved search features to optimize electronic patient records,” he said. “There’s no reason why generative AI technology — if effective — couldn’t be deployed in these sorts of roles immediately.”

“Rigorous science”
But while generative AI shows promise in specific, narrow areas of medicine, experts like Borkowski point to the technical and compliance roadblocks that must be overcome before generative AI can be useful — and trusted — as an all-around assistive healthcare tool.

“Significant privacy and security concerns surround using generative AI in healthcare,” Borkowski said. “The sensitive nature of medical data and the potential for misuse or unauthorized access pose severe risks to patient confidentiality and trust in the healthcare system. Furthermore, the regulatory and legal landscape surrounding the use of generative AI in healthcare is still evolving, with questions regarding liability, data protection and the practice of medicine by non-human entities still needing to be solved.”

Even Thirunavukarasu, bullish as he is about generative AI in healthcare, says that there needs to be “rigorous science” behind tools that are patient-facing.

“Particularly without direct clinician oversight, there should be pragmatic randomized control trials demonstrating clinical benefit to justify deployment of patient-facing generative AI,” he said. “Proper governance going forward is essential to capture any unanticipated harms following deployment at scale.”

Recently, the World Health Organization released guidelines that advocate for this type of science and human oversight of generative AI in healthcare as well as the introduction of auditing, transparency and impact assessments on this AI by independent third parties. The goal, the WHO spells out in its guidelines, would be to encourage participation from a diverse cohort of people in the development of generative AI for healthcare and an opportunity to voice concerns and provide input throughout the process.

“Until the concerns are adequately addressed and appropriate safeguards are put in place,” Borkowski said, “the widespread implementation of medical generative AI may be … potentially harmful to patients and the healthcare industry as a whole.” TechCrunch

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