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When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), the future promised by science fiction has in many ways arrived. Today, AI seamlessly influences many of our daily decisions, including the music we listen to, the shows we watch, the articles we read, and the purchases we make. AI understands us when we talk to our devices and finishes our sentences when we type a message. AI guides us in traffic and suggests faster routes when driving. Pretty soon, AI will simply drive the car.

As the technology develops, AI will continue to add speed, ease and efficiency to many more areas of our lives, but there’s one sector where it could have a more profound impact: health care. In the future, AI will improve our ability to accurately and quickly diagnose diseases, discover new drugs, develop individualized treatment plans, and augment the power of preventive medicine.

“We’re just now at the ramp-up time,” says Russ Greiner, a professor of computing science at the University of Alberta and the founding scientific director at the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII). AI for health care has taken off in the last five to 10 years, because it really works. The data sets are available, the algorithms that use the big data sets are effective, and the machines are powerful enough to run those complicated algorithms.”

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AI’s power lies in the data these complex computers collect, Dr. Grenier says. Doctors across the globe are using this technology to find patterns in data – information gleaned from clinical trials, scientific literature, patient histories and more – to help patients manage their own care better and find answers to the medical industry’s many unsolved mysteries. From these insights, predictive models can help doctors come up with personalized treatments for individual patients.

While AI is sure to have an impact on peopleʼs health in all sorts of ways, here are three big trends to pay attention to:

Health-management apps

One way the industry is personalizing health care is through apps that can help people make better decisions around managing their chronic conditions. “Managing disease means making a sequence of decisions,” Dr. Greiner says. “In a game, it’s not one move that matters, but the way you play.” AI can help people improve their health conditions on a decision-by-decision basis.

People with diabetes, for instance, produce a lot of data as they track not only their blood sugar levels, but their diet, exercise and sleep. Now, interactive apps, such as DreaMed’s insulin-dosage optimizer or Suggestic’s eating plan tool, are using that data to offer diabetes-management suggestions according to the user’s individual needs and characteristics.

One app, Sugar.IQ, which was developed by the IBM Watson Health team, uses AI to ingest data from a user’s glucose-monitoring device as well as from health records and scientific literature. The system processes that information and learns over time to recognize patterns that affect glucose levels, turning those insights into useful daily feedback.

Personalized health coaches

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Patients not only need help managing their medical conditions, they often require assistance navigating the health-care system in general. There are many layers to wellness, ways of receiving treatment, and of course, types of insurance coverage. To navigate that complexity, people will increasingly receive individualized health-care advice from AI systems.

Consider “Ella,” Sun Life Financial’s digital coach. “We have an unrealistic expectation in the health-care space that people are going to understand exactly what’s available to them,” says Eric Monteiro, senior vice-president of Client Solutions for Sun Life Financial Canada. “We give them a 150-page booklet when they sign up for a policy, and, as an industry, we expect them to read it, understand it, and memorize it.”

Ella removes much of that burden. “Ella will read the manual. She will know your plan, and she will know when to intervene,” Monteiro says. Using data from the clientʼs profile and the available service providers, Ella makes tailored suggestions to help people fully utilize their benefits and pension plans, better control their medical expenses and mitigate recurring health issues. She might point out a cost-saving generic version of a name-brand drug, for instance, or suggest a higher-rated chiropractor closer to the client’s home.

Ella makes many kinds of suggestions, but those that help people save money or time have the biggest impact, Monteiro says. Rather than doing a generic search on Google, people can leverage intelligent machines such as Ella to provide personally tailored advice to help them make the most of local health-care resources and their specific plan, he says.

Doctorsʼ assistants

Patients aren’t the only ones who will benefit from AI tools. Doctors will rely on AI too. “Artificial Intelligence plus clinician intelligence equals something new: medical intelligence,” says Anthony Chang, a pediatric oncologist, AI specialist, and chief information officer at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County in California.

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Dr. Chang predicts that AI will become a tool that doctors use as naturally as drivers use GPS. It’s not that they will blindly follow AI suggestions, he says, but they will use it to inform their own decisions.

For example, the field of medical imaging is growing exponentially in volume and complexity. AI tools are sifting through those images and learning to spot anomalies accurately and quickly, providing an extra layer of care to avoid mistakes and speed up diagnoses, says Dr. Chang.

AI won’t replace doctors, experts say. Rather, it can empower them to use information to make better decisions. For patients, AI can enhance access to health care, simplify the experience of seeking treatment, and improve the management of chronic conditions. All those gains promise to lower the cost of health care, both for the individual and for the system as a whole. AI for health care isn’t a futuristic dream. It’s just smart.


Three AI-enabled health apps people can use at home

Flo

Flo is a fertility and period tracker and ovulation calculator that employs AI to help predict cycles. The app analyzes user to identify patterns and provide individualized feedback.

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Ada

Ada is an interactive healthcare app with over four million users you can talk to about your symptoms and receive possible explanations based on similar cases and a medical knowledge base. The app then proposes next steps you might take.

Babylon

This app uses AI to make healthcare universal and affordable. Using the app, people can connect to doctors in a near instant, while the program’s AI analyzes your symptoms, compares your information to reams of medical-related data, and then offers diagnoses and treatment suggestions.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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