AI helps Northern California health providers to improve care, lower costs
Alexa and Siri, Amazon and Apple’s respective digital voice assistants, are everyday examples of artificial intelligence at work. But the technology is all around us.
With artificial intelligence, computers and machines are programmed to have the ability to solve problems and make rational decisions, augmenting human intelligence.
In a health care setting, AI is improving diagnoses and patient care delivery for everything from surgery scheduling and spotting cancer in its earliest stages, to alerting caregivers if a patient suddenly takes a turn for the worse.
AI also is being developed for patients so they can use an app on their smartphones to put in their symptoms and find out what may be wrong. Digital health company Babylon is doing this kind of work. In April, it acquired Novato-based Meritage Medical Network with its 700 North Bay physicians who provide care for nearly a half-million residents.
Along those lines, Sutter Health uses an AI-powered tool called Ada that lets people type in their symptoms on Sutter’s website or a smartphone to, again, learn what may be ailing them. Ada identifies a potential diagnosis, along with recommended next steps, according to Dr. Albert Chan, vice president and chief of digital patient experience at Sutter Health.
Sutter two years ago partnered with Ada Health, a Berlin-based global company that designed the application. Ada is not meant to replace physician care, but rather enhance it, Chan noted.
“One of the subtle things Ada does is it queues up the questions that doctors may have so when you ultimately see the doctor, you’ve thought about it,” said Chan, who also practices family medicine at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “In time, we're looking to actually integrate those reports so they come in directly to the doctor.”
From the inside
AI in the medical arena is mostly being deployed for internal purposes.
One of the primary uses of AI at NorthBay Healthcare is for medical transcription, said Chris Timbers, vice president and chief information officer at the Fairfield-based health care system.
“Compared to the old method, it's dramatically and statistically provable how much more accurate it is,” Timbers said. “The other advantage is it's very timely. With the old-fashioned dictation and transcription, there was usually a 24-hour turnaround. With this, the notes are almost instantaneous.”
The technology, which NorthBay adopted about five years ago, has the ability to learn and recognize voice patterns, as well as medical vocabulary. That efficiency has a dual purpose: it eliminates the cost of an outside medical transcription service and the potential for human error, which could lead to further problems down the road.
“I know that we were able to cut our dictation and transcription costs in half,” Timbers said.
NorthBay also adopted Houston-based Leap Rail’s AI technology that can accurately determine how long a surgery would take, potentially freeing up operating rooms sooner to make room for more procedures to be done on the same day, Timbers said.
Leap Rail’s technology does a deep dive through the patient’s electronic medical record to look for any comorbidities a patient may potentially have that aren’t obvious. That can make a difference in how much time a surgeon may need for a given procedure.
“It’s applying a statistical method to really large data sets that are just a little bit more accurate than even some of our most educated human beings,” Timbers said. “So, we've really been able to improve the accuracy of booking and scheduling our operating rooms, which is one of our most valuable resources.”
There's also a human value.
“We're able to give the family members a much better estimate of how long the surgery will take,” he said. “You can imagine if we tell them the surgery should take 90 minutes and it goes two-and-a-half hours, that creates a lot of anxiety.”
Kaiser Permanente, which operates four hospitals and numerous outpatient facilities in the North Bay, recently published a study that showed it’s possible to teach computers — using AI technology — to read written notes in medical records. The study focused on patients with aortic stenosis, a common but serious heart valve disease.
The study’s findings showed the computer was able to read through nearly a million electronic health records and echocardiograms, and identify 54,000 patients with aortic stenosis, according to Dr. Matthew Solomon, the study’s lead author.
“It would have taken years to go through the number of charts that we went through in minutes with the computer,” said Solomon, who is an adjunct researcher and cardiologist at The Permanente Medical Group.