Artificial intelligence and machine learning practitioners have been hard at work in the healthcare domain for some time. Not only are AI tools and algorithms paving the way for clinical-based medicine to be practiced at scale, they’ve made it possible for companies like Dialogue to innovate telemedicine as an indispensable workplace health benefit.
Telemedicine Then and Now
One of the earliest uses of artificial intelligence in healthcare involved speech recognition for medical transcription purposes. Since then, however, opportunities for applying AI technologies have cropped up in a variety of niche areas.
“There’s been a lot of success with machine learning in the medical imaging space, for example,” says Dialogue’s CTO Alexis Smirnov. “And this has led to some tremendous advances in the analysis of physical scans like mammograms. But it’s AI’s potential in telemedicine that we find especially exciting.”
Telemedicine was developed many years ago as an alternative modality for diagnosing and treating patients with the help of telecommunications technology. While it’s become quite mainstream in places like the US, Smirnov notes that most telehealth services are still being conducted without the benefit of artificial intelligence.
“If all you do is have a physician speak to a patient over the phone or video, there isn’t much opportunity for automation. In the last few years, however, large operators have begun to recognize that, in order to continue scaling their services, they need to apply automation to certain aspects of telemedicine.”
With its proven ability to speed up and streamline the patient care journey, AI-enhanced telemedicine has the capacity to drive down the cost of providing quality healthcare at scale. And in that sense, says Smirnov, companies like Dialogue – while still in the minority – are emerging as leading innovators of the telemedicine industry.
Should We Be Concerned About the Use of AI in Telemedicine?
As the most promising candidate to streamline administrative tasks and fill existing gaps in primary care, the benefits of artificial intelligence in healthcare seem obvious. AI-assisted telemedicine offers many opportunities for companies to reduce the costs associated with problems like absenteeism, while improving work-life balance for employees.
Given the potential for ethics concerns and medical errors, however, Smirnov believes it’s both fair and wise to maintain a healthy skepticism around AI systems in the healthcare space when it comes to making medical decisions.
“At Dialogue, we take the view that AI technology is not advanced enough to make human, medical-based judgements - especially given the human factors that go into those kinds of decisions. Having said that, however, there’s a big difference between making medical decisions and optimizing the non-medical components of the patient care journey.”
Specifically, says Smirnov, AI-enhanced automation consistently improves the patient experience by effectively scaling telemedicine physicians. Rather than replacing medical doctors, in fact, AI technology is able to assist them in such a way that high-quality care can be made available to more people.
Because many patient-telemedicine interactions involve navigating a complex healthcare system, for example, AI can be used to power personalized recommendation processes that identify a patient’s nearest clinic, lab, or pharmacy – without the need for medical intervention. At the same time, AI-enabled chatbots function as round-the-clock medical assistants by collecting patient data and connecting users directly to the right medical sources.
How AI Integration Enhances the Patient Journey
The care journey that Dialogue supports begins with the collection of information from patients in an autonomous way, using chatbots to create a conversational experience.
“It’s essentially about collecting a complete, accurate picture of the patient,” explains Smirnov, “which improves the medical decision-making that follows. With detailed data at hand, a medical professional can make an accurate determination in terms of taking that patient to the next step. And once that decision is made, its execution is very often immediate.”
Smirnov describes the example of a patient with a dermatology issue. Once contact has been initiated through Dialogue’s telemedicine platform, a chatbot collects the patient’s information and can even request that a photo be sent. Both data and photo are then validated by a medical professional.
Should the next step involve booking an appointment with a dermatologist, then the process can be automated once again. In this way, the healthcare provider is simply instructing the system to take the patient to the next step of their journey, which speeds up the care process and allows for a more efficient patient experience.
“We like the term human-in-the-loop for describing the concept of medical professionals making decisions with the help of AI,” Smirnov comments. “And every system that Dialogue builds and puts in front of a patient is inherently a human-in-the-loop system.”