GPs and the future of AI

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By guest blogger Dr Chris Whittle, NHS anaesthetist and clinical entrepreneur...

Most of the technology community agrees that artificial intelligence is in the exponential rise component of the typical adoption curve seen with any new technology. You can plot the same curve with everything from personal computers to the adoption of refrigerators, given enough data.

So how do we as a medical community prepare for such a large and rapid shift in processing? The last such change that affected us on a practical and every day level was the ubiquitous availability of information via the internet. What was until the 90s only accessible in the doctor's carefully selected and thumb-worn text book became accessible to any doctor and any patient who wanted to find out. The artificial intelligence (AI) shift has the potential to be even bigger, with some threatening that medical jobs and livelihoods are at stake.

But I am confident that loss of relevance of the General Practitioner is not the imminent risk. The reason? Because rather than being in the transaction business - think of our taxi services and online marketplaces - as medics we are actually in the business of relationships.

Let's break this down into the who, where, when, what, how and why of medicine.

The first three are largely already dealt with historically - a basic medical history allows the gathering of information, and the well established (and obligatory) recording of notes, whether paper or electronic, records the information. This part of medicine is very transactional, and AI could help with a 'quality assured' intelligent input of information to minimise communication errors - the biggest source of error in most human-orientated systems. In fact, AI can also help with predictive analytics - essentially a higher powered cohort analysis - but this is another topic for another time.

The 'what' and 'how' are the realms of AI augmentation; there is no doubt that machines are better than humans at compiling and computing. While the technology is still improving (humans don't have to drive a million miles to learn to drive, which self-driving cars currently do), there is a clear acceleration and accuracy that we cannot beat. The diagnosis of a melanoma on an image has seen dermatologists surpassed in their accuracy, and there is a clear sense in allowing high scale versions of this kind of technology to augment human skills, rather than training thousands more dermatologists to the highest level.

But the 'why' is the key component here - the part that human GPs provide. Why did this patient smoke for 40 years to cause this problem in the first place, and what circumstances might convince them to give up and add years to their life? What emotional reasoning and rapport building might be most effective in getting a patient to take their medication regularly?

At a time when patient engagement is so necessary - and in fact so vital to achieving meaningful patient empowerment - pushing AI into the consultation space too fast and too early will only cause backwards steps. Medicine needs patient engagement, and any professional marketer will tell you that emotional response to 'why' is greater than any perfectly reasoned 'what' or 'how'. And this is why GPs still need to consult with patients, using computing power to augment but not replace their relationship and rapport building skills.

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Chris Whittle

Dr Chris Whittle is an NHS anaesthetist by training, now working as an NHS England Clinical Entrepreneur and founder/CEO of MyMed healthcare. Chris believes in the value of working towards greater access for patients through technology enablement; get in touch at chris.whittle@mymedhealthcare.com if you'd like to discuss how to get involved with MyMed and their online service.

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