Imagine having a common but persistent medical symptom that you’re unsure how to treat. It’s quite easy, right? What if you were able to have a brief ‘conversation’ with a simple device located inside your home that would enable you to determine the best course of treatment – or at least provide you with a higher-level of confidence that seeking a medical provider is most advisable.
I recently acquired an Amazon Echo as a birthday gift and found it simple to use. Echo is a brand of smart speakers developed by Amazon that connects to the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service which responds to the name “Alexa.” A few other popular competing brands include the Apple HomePod (“Siri”) and Google Home. Alexa, we found, provides a form of entertainment for the user. Simply mention “Alexa” first, then issue your question or command.
Team games can be played with Alexa, including: Bingo, Tic-Tac-Toe, Song Quiz, True or False, Jeopardy, and many, many more. It is also enjoyable to invite Alexa to provide comical responses to simple questions, such as:
- “Alexa, tell me a baseball joke.”
- “…why is water wet?”
- “…give me a tongue twister.”
- “…give me a fortune.”
- “Alexa, provide me with current news.
- “…what is today’s weather forecast?”
- “…what’s the score of (my favorite sports team)?”
- “…call (my favorite pizza delivery place).”
Impending Healthcare Disruption?
About two months ago, we learned that three major titans within their respective industries – Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase – are planning to develop a bold and independent healthcare consortium for their U.S.-based employees. The details have yet to be fleshed out, but for three innovative and iconic ‘disruptors’ to take aim at the largest U.S. industry – that is ripe for disruption – there is great interest to learn more specifics about this ‘new’ approach.
Organic disruption of the medical industry will most likely result from avant-garde’ individuals and organizations who infiltrate niches to solve the ‘needs’ that patients have – making healthcare more affordable, possibly understandable, and just as importantly, more efficient. These smaller players will make inroads with the lower-hanging fruit not considered as profitable to the ‘legacy’ groups who currently fill that role today. Over time, unable to affordably compete, legacy groups will retract from their entrenched roles and become more motivated to fight new battles in progressively profitable niches. This view is held by Clayton M. Christensen, a leading expert on disrupting markets that are ripe for new innovations that will transform expensive, complex and sophisticated solutions into solutions that are simpler, more convenient and affordable. The push for value-based payments, medical science advancements, enhanced data analytics and consumer demand for value and convenience are driving the necessary changes.
Voice-Activated Artificial Intelligence
Along with its’ competitors, Amazon’s involvement around the voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI) is quite intriguing, especially as it may relate to healthcare. In a recent NY Times article, ’Dr. Eric Topal, physician-scientist, and noted author, was quoted as saying, “…They (Amazon) could start to use voice platforms, like Alexa, to help discuss symptoms and get feedback, to coordinate hospital post-op care through voice-activated A.I., to do these and other rote things.”
Asking AI to assist with mainstream medical problems (e.g. colds, flu, skin rash) will most assuredly be problematic – beginning with legal liability hurdles. Another major barrier would be for AI to apply the best and latest medical research to those who choose to interact with AI for medical care steerage. By having this vital ‘medical assistant’ available at all hours of the day and night, one may not need to make a doctor’s office visit, which is both time-consuming and expensive (e.g. average U.S. office visit is $115).
A major challenge for modern medicine is to take the latest peer-reviewed medical literature and use it to benefit the medical delivery system. According to research from the University of Ottawa, there were about 50 million science papers published from 1665 to 2009, but during the past decade, approximately 2.5 million new scientific papers are published EACH YEAR. Due to this exponential growth of knowledge, the medical world is drinking large volumes of medical research information from a fire hose, making it difficult for medical providers to discern which findings are most beneficial to their patients. That is where AI may eventually benefit providers and patients – but it will take both time and money to do so.
A current game available through Alexa, ‘Akinator,’ includes a deductive binary search process that asks up to 20 questions of the player allowing Alexa to guess a prominent person, celebrity or fictional character the player has in mind. Alexa, using AI capabilities stored in the database, can determine the most appropriate questions to ask that will allow Alexa to choose correctly.
Using a similar approach, Amazon could potentially ‘harvest’ peer-reviewed medical literature (sanctioned by the appropriate authorities in various medical communities) and ask their subscribers a bank of questions about their medical symptoms and conditions to assess the best practice of treatment for that patient and whether care should be sought in-person from a medical provider determined through this discovery process.
Although not a substitute for seeing a physician, this service could help people decide how urgent their concerns are, and whether they should visit a doctor immediately or wait a few days before seeking care. This could help reduce overtreatment and act as a first-line triage system to winnow out those who don’t need immediate treatment from people who should seek immediate care. This would be somewhat similar to the symptom checker at familydoctor.org that can help people decide how urgent their needs are.
This service may not sound very realistic today, but neither did having ‘Alexa’ or ‘Siri’ serving as our personal assistants just a few short years ago. We can never underestimate the growing boundaries of technology, especially if it will help overcome human limitations often made in our daily lives – such as delivering the right kind of convenient medical care.
The monetization of providing this service will be fascinating to observe in the years to come. Perhaps a monthly subscription would be paid to access a yet-to-be-invented ‘Amazon Medical’ app (similar to gaining access to Amazon Music). It just takes creativity and imagination – both of which would assuredly be welcomed in this particular industry.
Now that we have this problem and solution mapped out, “Alexa, fix my leaking toilet!”
To stay abreast of healthcare-related issues, we invite you to subscribe to this blog.
Anne Kinzel says
Lots to think about here. Is this the best path to get the right care, at the right time, at the right cost? After all that is the target that will provide the best outcome for individuals and society!
Blakely Moore says
I wonder if this would open up Amazon (or Apple or whatever company developed this diagnostic technology) open to malpractice lawsuit. If someone decides not to go to a doctor because of Alexa’s advice, resulting in a delay in a time-sensitive diagnosis, then did Alexa injure that person? I don’t know, but I imagine it’s something worth considering for these companies (and for the consumers).
David Lind says
Blakely, I’m sure this is a major impediment for tech companies to move swiftly within this particular arena, as you pointed out. Thank you for your comment!
Doctors are always guessing now a days anyway. I think A medical akinator would be a great benefit. Saving people money and emptying our hospital and clinic waiting rooms. SO Doctors could consentrate more on curing people instead of how many they have waiting to be seen.