It’s not hard to find examples of how Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence are re-defining healthcare.
Cerner integrates Electronic Medical Records and other files in a Cloudera Hadoop “Data Hub” that has saved lives by spotting bloodstream infections. IBM Watson, meanwhile, reviews millions of patient cases to diagnose a variety of medical conditions and prescribe personalized treatment plans.
Software like this exceeds the processing capacity of any doctor, which raises questions about the future of doctors and nurses.
And this job uncertainty is part of a larger trend that we’re still figuring out. MIT Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee told Harvard Business Review last month that they have grown more concerned about the role of technology in middle-class wage stagnation and job loss since publishing their book “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” in 2014. They believe that automation is increasing demand for high-skilled workers and decreasing it for lower skills.
This makes me glad my wife and I sent our 6 and 8 year old sons to a summer camp for making robots last week 🙂 But what does it mean to healthcare?
While the skills will change, I think we still can expect many job listings in this dynamic sector. To see why, here is a look at three human capabilities that far exceed those of analytics and AI software, according to Brynjolfsson, McAfee and other experts – and how they apply to healthcare.
1. Creativity: People rather than algorithms create new ideas. On the business side this leads to startups like telehealth provider Teladoc, wearable biometric sensor firm Valencell and Homecare Homebase, whose cloud-based solution enables everyone in a hospice or homecare patient’s support network to monitor their loved one.
Another dimension to human creativity is its role in treatment. Innovators at GE Healthcare have created a free iPad app called MIND (“Make an Impact on Neurological Disorders”) that uses art, music and dance to stimulate the senses of patients suffering from neurological issues such as a recent stroke, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. The larger “mind-body medicine” movement, examined in the 1997 book “Molecules of Emotion” by Dr. Candace Pert, continues to fuel new ideas about how human thoughts and emotions affect and can treat various medical conditions. We should not expect breakthroughs in this area from machines.
2. Emotion: Humans have become quite skilled at relating to one another’s emotions in order to nurture, coach and inspire. While Watson might best analyze certain ailments, most patients would rather interpret, understand and plan their treatment with a human. David Levin suggested in a recent panel hosted by the Radiological Society of North America that “radiologists should behave more like consulting physicians,” supervising advanced imaging examinations, advising patients about detailed test results and collaborating with referring doctors. This approach can apply to almost any aspect of healthcare, especially nursing, which the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says will grow 19% from 2012 to 2022, twice the average for the economy as a whole.
3. Dexterity: Brynjolfsson aptly describes how sensing and fine motor skills are difficult for machines:
“It’s unbelievably hard to get a robot to walk across a crowded restaurant, bus a table, take the dishes back into the kitchen, put them in the sink without breaking them, and do it all without terrifying the restaurant’s patrons.”
In a hospital or clinic the complexities just multiply. So while analytics or AI might improve certain repeatable aspects of patient measurement or even surgery, we still need the sure feet and opposable thumbs of people.
A final source of optimism is demographics. In 2030, one fifth of US citizens will be over 65, up from 13% in 2014. We’ll have more retirees looking for assistance from proportionally fewer workers, and we’ll need all the help we can get.
Healthcare is a fascinating microcosm for these trends and our future.