In the summer of 1968 I was working on the final few college credits I needed for a degree in mathematics and looking forward to a vacation with my wife and two-year old daughter. Then one of my professors gave the class an impossible assignment; write a paper on an “original” mathematical theory.
I was floored. How could I “invent” a mathematical concept from scratch? But after considerable anger, punctuated with copious expletives, I tried to think outside the box. My paper would describe how complex mathematical equations could be solved by a computer, sort of nascent artificial intelligence. I had no idea how it would be received, but a B+ helped me pass the course.
Well, I believe researchers must think outside the box to deliver more effective health care at lower cost. And artificial intelligence (AI) could greatly facilitate that effort.
Why is automation the number one eliminator of manufacturing jobs in the U.S.? It reduces costs. But while U.S. manufacturers are making cheaper products to meet competition, health care gets more expensive every year, in part because there is less automation and little competition.
Computer power and AI have come a long way since the 1960s. Initially smart technology in appliances like rice cookers was called “fuzzy logic” to dumb it down for the public. Now it pervades our daily lives — but more is needed in medical facilities.
During my recent physical exam, a nurse practitioner – we need more of them too — discussed my medications, listened to my heart and lungs and ordered my yearly blood tests. Why couldn’t an AI machine listen to my organs and assess how they are functioning? I’ll bet the result would be as good as most specialists. A smart phone or similar device could be used as a stethoscope at rural medical facilities and the signals transmitted to a central computer hundreds-of-miles away for analysis.
I have no doubt that a robot could take my blood sample and provide better information than a printed report that only shows if my blood chemicals are within healthy parameters. And what if there was a computer database that contained blood analyses from patients all over the country, along with their medications and clinical history? Could AI use such a resource for early detection of cancer, diabetes and other diseases? I think so; and the result would be lower treatment costs and better medical outcomes.
The United States has the most expensive health care system among developed nations, with total costs exceeding $3.3 trillion in 2016 and administrative costs estimated to exceed $300 billion. Yet Americans don’t use more health care than other countries or have better health.
Filling out four pages of forms every time I see a new physician frustrates me. Paper shuffling doesn’t improve health care. It just means more wasted effort and expense when my information could be maintained in a national database. Does the doctor ever look at it, much less try to evaluate it? Some are too busy seeing 50 or more patients every day. One physician I considered had 85 patients on his daily schedule.
What if Medicare and Medicaid maintained a database on every beneficiary that included medical history, medications taken and historical blood test results? I’ll bet it would result in more effective and less expensive health care. Yes, there are privacy issues, but those can be handled.
Actually, a similar project called the Precision Medicine Initiative was started under President Obama’s administration by the National Institute of Health. The NIH is assembling genomic information from a million volunteers for the world’s largest genetic library. It will be widely available to scientists and researchers in hopes of making faster advances in gene-based medicine.
Data like this is the raw material for dramatic medical discoveries.
But instead of greatly increased investments in medical science and other health care technology, most Republicans and many Democrats keep throwing money at the military. The Congressional Budget Office projects that defense will cost almost $7 trillion over the next decade. This will exceed the discretionary spending for all other government functions. And Republicans want further reductions in nondefense spending.
Republicans also favor turning government functions over to private industry. But let’s face it, corporations are focused on making profits; they don’t give a damn if Americans have to pay more for health care. In fact, some gain from it. And many in Congress don’t care either so long as they can get reelected.
Medicare and Medicaid are two of the most expensive items in the federal budget and these programs simply aren’t sustainable long term with costs going up every year. But Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his colleagues in Congress have only one solution in mind — turn Medicare into a premium support system and reduce funding for Medicaid. These GOP plans would cut health care benefits for millions of Americans and I don’t think they are politically viable.
Health care is critical for everyone, regardless of political party. Voters need to be like my math professor and give politicians an impossible assignment; provide better health care at lower cost or you won’t graduate to another term. Only then will legislators start thinking outside the box and find a way to get it done.