Participants of the HIMSS conference walk around the exhibition area
Debates about artificial intelligence and its role in healthcare were the focus of this week’s HIMSS Global Health Conference in Chicago, which brought together more than 35,000 physicians, other healthcare professionals, executives and engineers to discuss the latest advances in healthcare and technology.
companies such as Microsoft, Google And Amazon they prominently promoted new health applications for AI at booths across a sprawling exhibition space, and expert panels answered questions on how the technology can be used to address industry-wide challenges such as staff shortages and physician burnout.
Many healthcare organizations and companies have used AI in various capacities for years, but a subset known as generative AI exploded into public awareness late last year when Microsoft-backed OpenAI launched its viral new chatbot called ChatGPT. Generative AI refers to programs that can use fairly complicated end-user prompts to generate text or images.
Just as generative AI has captured the attention of the general public, it has also captivated the medical community.
AI was the focus of the opening speech at the HIMSS conference, and HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf opened the discussion by revealing that he asked ChatGPT how to solve global healthcare challenges. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) hosts the conference every year.
Wolf jokingly posed the question to ChatGPT, but David Rhew, global chief medical officer at Microsoft, told CNBC in an interview that generative AI could really be “transformative” to solve big problems in the healthcare industry.
“The opportunity to apply these large language models and artificial intelligence to clinical workflows is tremendous, and we need to be responsible about it,” he said.
For Rhew, that means starting with “high-impact, low-risk” uses of the technology, such as streamlining administrative tasks.
The development of diagnostic or direct patient-centric generative AI applications is associated with higher risk as it raises significant regulatory questions for companies, academics and federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration. Rhew said to think of AI as if the healthcare industry has just been introduced into a car, while stop signs, traffic lights or roads have not yet been created.
“We have yet to figure out how to do this together,” he said.
HIMSS CEO Hal Wolf speaks at the HIMSS conference
But in the meantime, administrative or “back office” tasks require less regulatory oversight and there is a real need for efficient solutions as office work is often onerous for clinicians.
A 2016 study funded by the American Medical Association found that for every hour a doctor spends with a patient, they spend an additional two hours on administrative work. The study states that physicians also tend to do an extra hour or two of office work outside of work hours.
Similarly, in 2017, the Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges published a survey in which respondents indicated that about 24% of their working hours are spent on administrative tasks. More than two-thirds of physicians surveyed said administrative tasks “negatively affect their ability to provide quality care.”
HIMSS participants told CNBC they believe generative AI can help with these tasks.
Let AI do the office work
On Monday, Microsoft announced an expanded partnership with Epic Systems, a healthcare software company that helps hospitals and other healthcare systems store, share, and access electronic medical records. More than 160 million people use Epic’s MyChart software, which gives patients direct access to their health information and their care team.
Epic’s first application of AI technology automatically generates draft responses to the messages doctors receive from patients via MyChart. Doctors don’t have to use the proposed draft at all, but it saves them time when editing or sending it.
Seth Hain, senior vice president of R&D at Epic, told CNBC in an interview that AI could serve as a powerful hypothesis generation tool for doctors in the future. He said they will be able to ask patient-specific questions such as: What do you think I should look at next regarding this issue?
Peter Lee, corporate vice president of research and incubations at Microsoft, told CNBC that an early look at Epic’s AI developments brought tears to his eyes.
“It just blew me away,” he said.
Nuance Communications, a speech recognition subsidiary of Microsoft, also announced a clinical note-taking application called DAX Express ahead of HIMSS in March. DAX Express is designed to help reduce the administrative burden for physicians by automatically creating a clinical note within seconds of a patient visit.
In a live demo at HIMSS, Nuance previewed future projects and showcased the capabilities of DAX Express, which was met with gasping breaths and exclamations of joy from a few doctors, nurses and caregivers in the room.
More than 35,000 people attended the HIMSS conference in 2023
Other companies are also working to use generative AI to reduce administrative burdens.
Amazon Web Services on Monday announced an expanded partnership with Philips, a healthcare technology company based in the Netherlands. AWS has already supported many of Philips’ existing cloud-based and AI initiatives, such as those that help radiologists analyze scans and medical images faster – even from home.
However, Monday’s announcement means that Philips will also leverage AWS generative AI technology to simplify its clinical workflows and enhance its imaging capabilities even further.
“What’s most exciting is the fact that we’re approaching a precipice where we have this tipping point where we’re making right easy,” said Shez Partovi, Philips chief innovation and strategy officer, in an interview with CNBC. “And right now, in most technology, the right thing is many clicks away.”
Partovi said that all the small tasks doctors have to do are like “death by 1,000 cuts,” so using AI to address administrative challenges can have a real impact on doctors’ quality of life.
On Tuesday, 3M Health Information Systems also announced that it is also working with Amazon Web Services’ machine learning and generative AI to reduce the administrative burden for physicians. 3M HIS powers a conversational AI platform used by more than 300,000 physicians, and the company said in a press release that AWS technology will make it easier for physicians to automate and complete accurate clinical notes in the electronic medical record.
Similarly, Google Cloud last week announced a Claims Acceleration Suite that leverages AI to streamline health insurance claim processing and pre-approval.
According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the current pre-approval process takes an average of 10 days. Google’s AI will help alleviate some of this administrative burden for providers by converting the unstructured data that appears in images, PDFs or other health records into a more digestible, structured format.
“They actually require a human being to go in there and take that data and put it into the system for review,” Amy Waldron, director of strategy and solutions for global health plans at Google Cloud, said during a media briefing with reporters from HIMSS. “Which makes absolutely no sense to me as someone has to take the time to put all this rich data in there and we have AI that can unlock that value.”
Generative AI has “tremendous” potential to improve managerial efficiency in healthcare, Microsoft’s Rhew said. However, as healthcare and technology companies make increasingly sophisticated advances, industry leaders, regulators, and community academics must ensure that generative AI is fair and harmless to communities.
The technology is prone to bias and discrimination when trained on health data that does not properly represent a patient population, which could ultimately lead to inadequate decision-making or treatment plans.
As a result, Rhew said, there’s a collective responsibility to figure out how to use AI with care.
“It’s a transformative technology,” he said, “but we have to figure out how to use it responsibly.”