AI and the Giant Rabbits of Helsinki (#HIMSSEurope20 – Day 3)

When we visited Helsinki last summer to attend HIMSS Europe, we were amazed while visiting the botanical gardens to see several large rabbits. I mean, these things were huge – perhaps mutant Arctic hares conjured by Finnish wizards.

I recently discovered the reality was much more prosaic. For more than 30 years, the city has been dealing with an infestation of escaped domestic rabbits which have never been controlled and the rabbits we saw were just an example of this.

And so, AI.

At HIMSS Europe 20, which should have been held in Helsinki again, but thanks to COVID-19 has become a virtual experience, the majority of plenary sessions on this third day of the conference were dedicated to discussing various aspects of artificial intelligence or machine learning.

One of the key messages to emerge from those sessions is that AI is no longer something marvellous (hence the extremely tortured analogy to the giant rabbits). Rather, the speakers and panelists positioned it as another tool which needs to be fitted into the spectrum of useful technological aids to make clinicians work easier and improve health outcomes.

“AI is not magic so what it can do should not be overstated,” said David Champeaux, a leader in digital and AI innovation in health care and currently chief growth officer for Cherish Health. Valentin Tablan, chief AI officer at IESO Digital Health made the same point stressing that people continue to have unrealistic expectations of AI and there needs to be an acknowledgement that AI is fallible.

AI is really just another form of data-based technology, said Dr. Indra Joshi, director of AI at NHSx.

Speakers at HIMSS stressed that the main value of AI would be in augmenting the existing workflow of clinicians. This more mundane outlook is supported by a survey released by Accenture at this meeting last year, which noted the main investments in AI in health care will come in the administrative sector.

Just as discussions at this meeting yesterday centred on the need for trust and transparency to support data sharing, so speakers today similarly spoke of the need for public trust in how AI functions. In Canada we continue to depend on often over-hyped media reports on AI advances. In contrast, an initiative from the University of Helsinki and the Finnish company Reaktor translated into all EU official languages and made available to more than 500,000 students basic education about AI.

Similarly, Petra Wilson, European Program Director for the Personal Connected Health Alliance noted that clinicians needed to have confidence that the AI applications they use are safe and appropriate for the task at hand. Clinicians will only accept AI if it makes their life easier and fits into existing workflows, said Dr. Mathias Goyen, chief medical officer for GE Healthcare EMEA.

Perhaps even more radically, Christopher Ross, CIO for the Cleveland Clinic said there needed to be recognition that not every clinical problem or situation needed “an AI cannon” pointed at it if when similar technologies can do the job.

Despite the general theme of deglamourizing AI there remains an aura of excitement and anticipation around the promise of this technology in health care. A number of AI-based clinical apps were demonstrated during the day and Ross noted there are 200 projects involving AI in various stages of development at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Joshi also noted that the NHS has just recently completed a competition to select several AI-based projects for development. The reframing of the role of AI in healthcare already seems to be gaining acceptance in a broader clinical audience. Results from a Philips survey of 500 young physicians and nurses in 5 countries released this week showed that since COVID-19, telehealth has overtaken AI as the technology that would most improve their experiences.

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