It can come across as a trick question: Would a patient prefer to work with a doctor who uses artificial intelligence, or one who does not? Most, in response to a just-released poll by leading healthcare technology company Medtronic, chose the latter: After all, why rely on a machine when one can still rely on a brilliant human?
But therein lies the rub. What AI-utilizing doctors are, in fact, is not less than but more: Artificial intelligence isn’t replacing medical experts but making better ones. Their skills are augmented by the new technology, not outmoded by it. And when asked that question – would a patient prefer a great doctor or an even better one? – the answer is obvious: The latter, please.
Uncertainty when it comes to how AI will be utilized in industries across the board is common, and healthcare – as the above illustrates – is no exception. In fact, it could be argued that its use in such an important arena must be handled more delicately than in others. But AI’s utility is also perhaps more promising here than in any other sphere. AI can improve diagnosis accuracy and early disease detection. It can give underserved groups greater access to healthcare by improving doctors’ ability to make informed decisions about prioritization, and by rooting out biases in information that lead to subpar care. And it can prevent doctor burnout, which increased by 5% in 2022 alone, via AI-informed administrative tools and medical ones.
As such, it’s no surprise that the Medtronic polling also reflects high interest in AI applications to healthcare. 51% of U.S. adults are optimistic that new applications of artificial intelligence will lead to major advancements and breakthroughs in the sector in the year ahead. A desire to work with doctors who use it in specific ways that a patient has been apprised of and understands (rather than more vaguely) is also reflected in the polling data. Two-thirds say they would likely work with a doctor who uses AI to analyze X-rays, tests and CT scans. (As noted above: Of those who are asked a more general question about AI’s use by doctors, only about a third would prefer to use a doctor who employs the technology.)
The key, then, is providing the best tools and delivering them via the most responsible companies. What are they, and where are they coming from?
Leading examples are from Medtronic, whose history dates back nearly 75 years to 1949. The 90,000 employee-strong global company that exists today was started by two enterprising engineers out of a Minneapolis garage. Quickly, it became known for its responsible yet daring approach to device innovation. In 1957 it invented the first battery operated pacemaker and, a year later, the first implantable version of the machine. Further breakthroughs in heart care – implantable defibrillators, which treat tachycardia, among them – diabetes and Parkinson’s have kept it leading med tech. Its approach to AI applications is fundamentally no different.
One patient-centric tool is Medtronic’s GI Genius intelligent endoscopy module. The first AI-informed detection system for improving colonoscopy accuracy, it’s trained on 13 million images of polyps. In one study, it reduced missed polyps by 50% compared to traditional white light colonoscopies. Considering colon cancer is the second deadliest form of the disease globally, but it has a 90% survival rate when caught early, the lifesaving advantage is incalculable.
Another example of Medtronic’s life-saving innovation: Its AccuRhythm AI algorithm technology, which is applied to the LINQ II insertable cardiac monitor for patients with abnormal heart rhythms to reduce false alerts. For patients who are already experiencing everything from dizziness to fainting, to chest pain as a result of potential underlying heart conditions, the peace of mind that ICMs provide is crucial. AccuRhythm AI helps doctors and nurses more efficiently manage their patients, allowing them to focus on the alerts that truly matter.
Of course, impressive statistics, industry accolades (AccuRhythm received this year’s MedTech Breakthrough Award for “Best New Monitoring Solution”), and innovation are great. But because AI’s use in med tech is still evolving, it’s understandable that patients bring a dose of skepticism to new tools. Ken Washington, Medtronic’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, who also oversaw the development of self-driving cars at Ford and Consumer Robotics at Amazon, says such concerns are understood by Medtronic. “We were one of the first companies to develop a set of guidelines for the responsible use of AI in medtech,” he notes, referring to the company’s AI Compass. “We basically said, ‘Before we go forward with everybody just jumping in…let’s take a step back and come up with some ground rules.’” Composed of seven guiding principles illustrating Medtronic’s commitment to applying AI ethically and where it will contribute to patient health outcomes, it addresses beneficial use, transparency, fairness and non-discrimination, oversight issues and more.
Washington believes that AI is not only the future of med tech but will transform healthcare altogether. “In my thirty-plus year history of working in technology I have never seen it slow down, it’s only sped up,” he says. “So if you apply that to AI and med tech, in ten years it’s going to be almost unrecognizable in terms of the power and efficacy and the ability for it to improve patient outcomes.” Which brings him – and us – back to Medtronic’s core mission: to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life for patients.