Ainsley MacLean, MD: How AI powers health care innovation, enhances care

Ainsley MacLean, MD
Ainsley MacLean, MD

From diagnosing complex conditions to performing critical procedures, physicians face an array of high-stakes decisions every single day. In a recent Forbes column, Ainsley MacLean, MD, chief medical information officer for the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, shared how AI (artificial intelligence) in health care can help doctors work more effectively and efficiently in the near future — enhancing patient care and revolutionizing health care in the process.

Permanente physicians and researchers are long-time leaders in health care innovation, including the development and use of AI tools and programs. Examples include a predictive analytics tool that reduced patient mortality by identifying patients at risk of deteriorating, a machine learning program that analyzes retinal images of patients with diabetes to enable earlier intervention, and a natural language processing tool that identified 54,000 patients with valvular heart disease from nearly a million echocardiography reports — a process that took minutes but which would have taken physicians years to do manually.

Dr. MacLean, who is also associate medical director for Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology with MAPMG, noted that the advent of AI technology opens up new possibilities for supporting the ability of physicians to solve complex medical problems. AI could benefit doctors by assisting in the initial triage process, including patient portals and electronic questionnaires to determine the right level of care. Digital triage can then help decide whether a virtual or in-person visit is appropriate, or if digital tools can get patients the care they need.

With their ability to analyze vast amounts of data, AI-generative tools would allow physicians to provide patients with routine medication instructions or address common questions quickly and consistently. Doctors could review and edit these responses, ensuring accuracy and timely communication and thus enhancing the overall patient experience.

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In imaging-heavy fields like radiology, AI has the potential to be truly transformative. “AI imaging tools can flag a bleed in the head on a CT scan and move it to the top of the radiologists’ queue,” Dr. MacLean wrote. “These tools can also confirm an area of breast cancer on a pathology slide, diagnose glaucoma, or measure the amount of calcification in the arteries of the heart.”

By acting as a safety check, AI tools help radiologists, cardiologists, pathologists, and ophthalmologists manage the increasing diagnostic workload efficiently. It also allows for more accurate diagnoses and frees up valuable time for doctors to focus on patient-centered care and decision-making.

Despite the remarkable efficiency and diagnostic capabilities of AI, Dr. MacLean believes the role of doctors remains secure.

“Doctors will not be replaced by AI because so much of the practice of medicine is about delivering a human experience,” she said. “The vast majority of patients would prefer to get health information, particularly in serious cases, from their doctors as opposed to from a generative AI tool.”

As innovation in health care continues to evolve, Dr. MacLean writes that the true power of AI lies in its ability to enhance the doctor-patient relationship. Streamlining administrative tasks and processing vast amounts of information allows physicians to dedicate more time and attention to their patients’ well-being. It’s the human touch, combined with the invaluable knowledge accumulated through years of practice, that helps ensure patients receive the highest quality care possible.

“When technology makes it possible for doctors to spend more time with their patients, and to do what they do best — improving their care in myriad ways — everybody wins.”

Note: You can read Dr. MacLean’s column on Forbes.

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