CHUCK NORRIS: AI Applications in Health Care Producing Both Promise and Fear

It is natural when someone coughs to speculate about what that cough means. Maybe just a clearing of the throat or the start of a cold. Maybe it’s the onset of an allergy or maybe something worse. If it gets bad enough, they are likely to turn to a doctor for answers and potential treatment. For openers, they will no doubt be asked to describe the symptoms and experiences that led to the visit. The exact number of times they coughed per day, I’m guessing, would not be in their answer.

We are now learning that the number of times a person coughs a day, and the pattern of those coughs, is now looked at as an untapped resource to better understand a person’s health.

Writes 1TrueHealth, an information website for news and resources for local doctors and Care Navigators, “companies like Google Health see even basic information such as getting an accurate count of the number of times a person coughs a day as a useful resource … In the not-too-distant future, Google is aiming to capitalize on cough monitoring,” they write. Google Health sees at least three different ways this cough count might be helpful: It could help in determining how environmental factors such as allergens and pollution can affect a person’s health. It could give an individual a heads-up when there are spikes in the number of coughers in their area — a sign of the risk of picking up an infectious disease like flu or COVID. For people with chronic conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it could alert them when their cough patterns change indicating the onset of an episode.

Says Jamie Rogers, product manager at Google Health, “It’s a sea change to have a common device, the smartphone, which everyone has sitting by their bedside or in their pocket, to help observe your coughs.” It is believed that cellphones and other wearables devices with recording capabilities could have apps for capturing and analyzing that data for potential medical use.

“In the era of precision health, it’s ironic that such a problematic symptom is simply unmeasured,” says Peter Small, chief medical officer at Hyfe AI, a company that currently claims a database of more than 400 million cough samples (considered the largest in the world) that researchers are now analyzing for their potential medical use. “It’s going to transform the whole clinical approach for this common and chronic symptom.”

According to Small, using a form of artificial intelligence known as “acoustic AI,” his company is now able to analyze information from these cough samples, much in the way the medical community reacts to things like blood pressure, blood sugar and body temperature. “Collect enough samples, gather enough data, and patterns begin to emerge,” he adds. His company is also studying how such data can help predict the prognosis of respiratory illness.

Dr. Lawrence Cai is a medical specialist in mobile sensing at Google Health. “I keep seeing more and more studies of people coughing into a microphone, and an algorithm can detect whether somebody has TB with 95% specificity and sensitivity, or if someone has pneumonia or an exacerbation of COPD,” he says. “If digital cough monitoring became more available, the information could even help people with COPD, asthma, or allergies to prevent severe episodes that require costly and intensive medical treatment.” Understanding changes in coughs could help everyone become more proactive about their health, reports 1TrueHealth.

Says the Mayo Clinic, developments in AI are also helping address a major problem in health care for American physicians — burnout. According to Forbes, a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that more than 3 in 5 physicians in the study reported at least one manifestation of burnout in 2021. A major culprit cited was the increasing administrative demands that lead to decreased time spent with patients. As reported by the medical information website Medscape, a recent time-allocation study showed that physicians on average spend 49% of their work time on administrative tasks, and just 29% actually caring for patients.

Reports Forbes contributor Dr. Omer Awan, a practicing radiologist physician in Baltimore, current AI tools are being tested that may dramatically help doctors with some of their mundane tasks. One example comes from a French startup called Nabla, which is working on a system that can automatically provide a summary of a patient-doctor conversation in real-time during hospital and clinic visits. They can then be generated as a report and approved by the physician “by as little as a click of a computer mouse.”

Another AI system called Regard is described as a “co-pilot AI” that works alongside physicians to reduce their workload “by comprehensively mining the medical record, using that data to make diagnoses, and then drafting clinical notes for physicians to review and sign.”

Reports Awan, a major concern for AI tools and software in health care is said to be biases that are found to be inherent in these systems as well as erroneous outputs that are not factually accurate, says Awan. Claims Regard’s CEO, Eli Ben-Joseph, “Regard does not have issues with bias or fabrication like other tools.” Such issues aside, “These AI tools could be a game-changer in combating physician burnout, a problem that does not seem to disappear from healthcare.”

As a solution to health care issues, many experts are quick to point out that AI is still far from being a perfect solution. In fact, as recently reported by CNN Business, a group consisting of some of the biggest names in tech, including Elon Musk, are suggesting it’s time we pump the brakes when it comes to artificial intelligence applications for at least six months — especially when it comes to the most powerful AI systems. The letter cites “profound risks to society and humanity.” They recommend that independent experts should use the proposed pause to jointly develop and implement a set of shared protocols for AI tools that are safe “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Artificial intelligence experts have become increasingly concerned about AI tools’ potential for biased responses, the ability to spread misinformation and the impact on consumer privacy,” writes CNN Business reporter Samantha Murphy Kelly.

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