The spread of Covid-19 exposed major weaknesses in the world’s healthcare systems. Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a rush of investment in automation in the hope that technologies such as AI can streamline processes and create efficiencies. Naturally, this has led to some nervousness among healthcare professionals that AI could soon make their job obsolete. The proliferation of tools such as ChatGPT and Google’s Bard have done little to ease these anxieties because they give the appearance of replicating humans in data and language-based tasks.
Ignoring the fact that generative AI isn’t replicating humans through its responses at all (it merely makes a statistical assumption of what the answer would be like if people on the internet were to answer the prompts presented), the real target of AI in healthcare is the massive amount of waste, not the salaries of talented and hardworking healthcare professionals. The fear of this is part of what economists call the ‘Lump of Labor” fallacy. In a nutshell, the fallacy suggests that there is a fixed amount of work to be done within the economy. This suggests that if jobs are automated, in part or whole, those jobs are lost, making machine automation the enemy of people. But historically, that hasn’t been what has happened. The more efficient and effective machines of any kind can make the work humans do, the more work humans are able to take on, and that creates prosperity and the need for more goods and services. And more jobs.
Think about it. If a provider can manually analyze 20 cases a day, and some form of automation increases that to 50 because it takes the rote pattern-matching on and frees the provider up to do the work only a human can (making a decision about a patient’s care), the provider’s job doesn’t go away, it just means they can help more people. Tech analyst and prominent essayist Benedict Evans says it’s been going that way with automation for the last 200 years, and there’s very little reason to expect AI automation to be any different.
Nevertheless, AI will definitely change the world of work within healthcare. Individual health professionals and business decision makers alike must prepare now to maximize AI opportunities.
Preparing for market disruption
Dubbed the ‘Industrial Revolution 3.0’ by some market analysts, there is no question there will be winners and losers as businesses implement AI automation. Though there have been promising advances in AI’s ability to diagnose or identify disorders before humans can, we are still some way off robotic surgeons being able to directly cure or treat patients. The Da Vinci robot has assisted 60,000 surgeons in 10 million procedures, but it still requires the surgeon. The robot makes the surgeon more efficient, effective, and safe, but it doesn’t replace the need for them. The Association of American Medical Colleges indicates that we’re going to be anywhere from 15,800 to 30,200 surgeons short by 2034. The roles that are likely to be most resilient to AI are face-to-face jobs that rely on insight and decisions that only a human can make, such as nurses and doctors. Providers will use AI to support and assist, to augment and improve, but not to replace human-to-human care.
Those who work in ordering, logistics, or customer experience are the individuals who need to be most prepared to use AI tools. AI itself will not take these jobs, but somebody who knows how to use it effectively will certainly become a more effective replacement for those who don’t. AI can help reduce wastage or fill in the customer experience gaps with automated conversations, but human workers will still have to sense check these decisions and override if necessary. If you are in these roles and aren’t yet comfortable with how AI tools can help you in your career, then you should consider upskilling.
For those who work in healthcare on the front-line providing treatment, the only effect they will feel from AI is a positive one. If healthcare providers enable AI to play to its strengths – data processing and coordination – doctors, nurses, and surgeons will have more access to patient data than ever before. They will have a clearer picture of a patient’s ongoing health or emerging conditions via data points thanks to AI automating collection, storing, and presentation.
Ai will also serve care providers by filling gaps in customer experience – tasks that there’s never enough time or resource to do. Nobody is currently checking in on patients to see if they are taking their prescriptions or enabling them to log concerns they notice after operations. AI, however, can reach out via digital channels and ensure concerns, complaints, or deviations from treatment plans are logged and presented. How can AI take a person’s job if nobody is doing it? And then it also begs the question, if AI is suddenly supplying insights that aren’t currently being captured, who will analyze and act on it if the aim of AI is to replace the people? AI will help providers do more of what matters most and arm them with a greater amount of higher quality information to truly drive better outcomes.
Looking longer term
Can you think of any industry where the user experience is as complicated as healthcare? You can get a pizza delivered to your door without having to make a single phone call, and it’ll show up in less than 30 minutes, but getting answers for health concerns can take months. It’s common for a patient to resort to multiple internet searches, phone calls, and one or several in-person appointments (sometimes after being on a waiting list). And it doesn’t end at the appointment. There might be referrals, letters, more phone calls, and so on.
It is not working, and it is partly why healthcare is so expensive. ‘Long wait times’, ‘issues with staff members’ and ‘a short time with a doctor’ are the top three complaints Americans have about healthcare. Patients want more care, not less, but simply employing more staff when inefficiencies are contributing to so much waste will not fix the issue. If you’ve got a hole in your rowboat, having extra passengers baling buckets over the side won’t solve your problem. You have to plug the leak first. Afterwards, you can use those extra passengers to help you navigate a dry boat (and even help you build an even better one once ashore).
Illustrative figures of speech aside, it should be clear that if AI can plug some of these data and communication gaps, it may well be that there will be more people employed in healthcare rather than less. If AI could fuse your health data with the world of published scientific research, it could give you specific details about the disorders you are particularly susceptible to. Doctors could use this data to make better decisions, thereby increasing demand, which in turn will create jobs. If those who delay or go without healthcare can be brought back into receiving services thanks to the reduced costs and better outcomes, then the healthcare industry will finally start to see the transformation it so desperately needs.
Consider the study that showed that physicians in Europe generally spent 50% of their time treating patients. After they were given access to AI tools, that increased to 67%. Far from taking their job, AI gave them more time to do it well.
The US government spends more on healthcare than any other country per capita. Despite this, four in ten adults say they have delayed or gone without medical care in the past year due to cost. Between $760bn and $935bn is wasted every year due to preventable factors such as overtreatment or poor coordination. This is around a quarter of total healthcare spending. AI supplies solutions to solve a great deal of this inefficiency and waste. The World Economic Forum concluded in October 2020 that AI will take away 85 million jobs globally by 2025 but it would also generate 97 million new ones. It will not be long before being literate in AI tools will be as expected as being computer literate is now. That reality is coming to healthcare just as quickly as it is other sectors.
But while using AI can shrink the gap between unskilled and skilled labor, the room for human proficiency, talent, and creativity remains. AI in its present state isn’t capable of rendering human intelligence obsolete. If a task is handed off to the AI, who teaches it and provides oversight to decide that the AI is operating safely? Human beings with expertise in the task. AI is a tool to help people focus on the work that matters most, the work that only a human can do.
Like any other sector, healthcare will make full use of AI where there is an economic benefit, and it’s clear that workers who can get the best out of it will rise through the ranks. AI is an opportunity, not a threat for those working within healthcare.