Arlene Weintraub in Forbes:
Artificial intelligence (AI) is being embraced by hospitals and other healthcare organizations, which are using the technology to do everything from interpreting CT scans to predicting which patients are most likely to suffer debilitating falls while being treated. Electronic medical records are scoured and run through algorithms designed to help doctors pick the best cancer treatments based on the mutations in patients’ tumors, for example, or to predict their likelihood to respond well to a treatment regimen based on past experiences of similar patients. But do algorithms, robots and machine learning cross ethical boundaries in healthcare? A group of physicians out of Stanford University contend that AI does raise ethical challenges that healthcare leaders must anticipate and deal with before they embrace this technology. “Remaining ignorant about the construction of machine-learning systems or allowing them to be constructed as black boxes could lead to ethically problematic outcomes,” they wrote in an editorial published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Their warning was timely, considering developments such as this one, announced today with a rather breathless headline: “Smart software can diagnose prostate cancer as well as a pathologist.” A group of researchers from Drum Tower Hospital in Nanjing, China, who are attending the European Association of Urology congress in Copenhagen, said they have developed an AI system that can identify prostate cancer from human tissue samples and classify each case according to how malignant the cancer is. “This may be very useful in some areas where there is a lack of trained pathologists. Like all automation, this will lead to a lesser reliance on human expertise,” said an Italian researcher who reviewed the work of the Chinese team, in a statement.
Few medical experts expect AI to completely replace doctors—at least not in the short term. Instead machine learning is being used mostly for “decision support,” to help guide physicians towards accurate diagnoses and tailored treatment plans. These can be quite useful. Forbes contributor Robert Pearl, a professor at Stanford, wrote earlier this week about an AI application developed by Permanente Medical Group that uses data compiled from 650,000 hospital patients to identify which people admitted to hospitals today are at risk of needing intensive care. The system alerts physicians to the at-risk patients so they can try to intervene before patients end up in the ICU.