AI is fast becoming a reality. What does this mean for medical affairs?
It is safe to say that popular fiction has not been too kind to artificial intelligence. Its origins can be seen in Mary Shelley’s time-honoured parable about the creator who is destroyed by his creation.
Countless sci-fi depictions suggest AI has become the modern-day iteration, the ultimate metaphor for mankind’s self-destructive power (think Skynet’s killing machines).
These depictions may capture our imagination, but do they match reality? Is AI technology maligned and misunderstood?
The Oxford Dictionary defines artificial intelligence as: “The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.”
Such capabilities are already bearing fruits across the industry, says Chris Keenan, Head of Worldwide Medical Customer Engagement, Medical Capabilities at Bristol-Myers Squibb, who points to the manifold possibilities afforded by AI within the healthcare industry.
“We have AI imaging tools that can see what the human eye cannot see and even the best doctors in the world are starting to augment their practices by leveraging these imaging tools to be able look beyond what they were ever able to see before. You can predict cancer earlier than ever before with the ability to process larger amounts of patient data,” he says.
“It is also impacting the development of our products and the ability to accelerate clinical trials. Yes, there is a business application to that, but it truly is about the patients; the quicker we can bring safe products to market, the more options Physicians will have to treat their patients,” he adds.
Keenan also cites chatbots, which utilise speech recognition and virtual assistance, as a revolutionary step in the customer engagement space. “Where you would typically have a pharmacist or a highly skilled individual within a customer service department; you now have chat bots, where you may engage a pharmaceutical company with an FAQ type of question. The data’s highly structured. Remember the old days where you would have your chat available eight to five o’clock? Why? Because there’s a human. Well today, we have the ability to send information 24/7, 365 days a year.”
AI’s unique ability to not only process but make sense of vast data sets is also strengthening medical affairs touchpoints, asserts Keenan. “What cognitive reasoning affords us, is looking at massive amounts of data, both real-world data, social data, internal data and truly understanding what that computer’s talking about.” He continues. “If you are an oncologist and neuroscience is new to you, we have the ability, or we will have the ability to able to decipher that data, so when we have a conversation face to face, we are better prepared with the data that person is looking for. It affords us greater flexibility, responsiveness and speed,” he says.
Keenan also has high hopes for the future of speech recognition and its ability to “disseminate information in an appropriate, balanced, safe and accurate way” to HCP’s, through further developing the FAQ model. Natural language processing (NLP) being the next evolutionary step says Keenan, which uses advanced algorithms to respond to the complex nuances of human conversation.
“It will empower the healthcare provider with more choices to get data quicker, accurately and with greater speed to help them become better at what they are doing,” he says. “Doctors throughout the world are getting burnt out, why? It is not solely because they are seeing too many patients, it is because the amount of information to be absorbed from electronic medical records (EMR) is like drinking from a firehose and the data that they have to capture is an administrative task, its killing them. That’s where a lot of these AI industries are going to automate some of these administrative activities, so our doctors can focus on practicing medicine with their patients.
“The more that we can give them an effortless customer experience, the better they can perform for patients and the better we can serve them and ultimately the patients as well,” he says.
The emergence of virtual systems is also playing a pivotal role in supporting one of medical’s core functions, says Keenan. “We want to make sure you use our products safe and appropriately. Many of our products are based on compliance. Now virtual assistance can be available 24/7,instead of keeping a call centre open for 24 hours, which is challenging to do these days, especially with high skilled talent.
“These virtual systems can help you through compliance on meds. Diabetes is a prime example, where people have to manage diet, they have to manage adherence, virtual systems help you do that and yet what virtual assistance really is, it’s AI engagement, it’s not engaging a person.”
Keenan may be an AI advocate, but he is also wary of the potential risks. He warns against diving head first into the emerging technology, without first fleshing out a clear and comprehensive business objective. If you do not have a practical understanding of the problem you are trying to “solve”, it is doomed to fail, he cautions.
Whereas, for example, “if you have a clear business objective of how you are trying to improve the customer experience, delivering value for your organisation by automating routine administrative tasks, so that you can invest more into R&D than administrative work, there are real business problems to be solved,” he says.
Keenan has a firm grip on the goal he is working towards in medical, for example. “I want to be able to deliver medical information 24/7, 365 days a week to HCP’s. Making sure that it is relevant, and it is balanced. With machine cognitive reasoning, in terms of basic FAQ’s, the technology is available; but engaging in more deep dialogue from a scientific perspective, the technology is not there yet, but I guarantee it will be as its emerging.”
This naturally feeds into another other key area of concern: managing AI expectations, says Keenan. “These tools are emerging technologies, do not think that these tools are going to solve all your problems, they are not. You have to be realistic because much of the industry’s overpromising the capabilities of what many of these tools can achieve.”
There is also the serious issue of cyber security to consider, says Keenan. The threat is not exclusive to AI, but digitising more and more of your business operations increases the susceptibility of sensitive information being compromised, he warns.
Citing the risks posed to medical health records, Keenan urges due diligence when handling data from HCP’s and patients. “There is nothing more personal than when we look at electronic medical records, that is the essence of who we are as humans. It is one thing to steal our social security number, it is another thing to steal our electronic medical records and who I am as a person and what challenges I may be confronted with from a health perspective.”
Will AI supersede everything else as the main driver of innovation in medical? For Keenan, the answer is quite simply no. “It is not going to replace the one to one relationships, it is just another step forward in progress on how to engage patients and the healthcare community,” he says.
AI’s “autochannels” such as chatbots, will supplement the current multi-channel experience, not supersede it, he says. “You will still have chat functions, the phone and face to face engagement; which will always be prominent for us within pharma, doctors want to talk and have peer to peer conversations.”
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