AI can help docs make better decisions

Dr Jeffrey Chew Tec Hock postulated that apart from offering doctors a second opinion, artificial intelligence (AI) must not be allowed to replace physicians in having the final say concerning a patient's treatment or medication ("AI pushes medical frontiers but it's no replacement for doctors"; May 30).

It can be argued that technology is not able to tell, with absolute certainty, the best course of treatment for a patient. However, computers are definitely getting better at making sense of unstructured information.

Advocates of AI in medicine are not claiming that technology will take over the role of doctors any time soon. However, it will evolve in interesting, if not always predictable, ways in medicine.

I understand Dr Chew's concerns about how far technology has encroached on medical practitioners' turf. This is to be expected - as AI systems get more intelligent, the line between computers recommending the course of treatment and making decisions may become blurred.

Doctors will point to their years of training and experience helping them to make decisions based on intuition, sound reasoning and moral judgment.

AI aims not to replace conscious human reasoning, but to enable physicians to arrive at better decisions, using the computer's cognitive capabilities to assist human brains.

One fear is that AI will take over decision-making from doctors. However, most developers of such systems do not claim to possess diagnostic tools, but position their products as data banks.

At present, the algorithm is accurate enough for engineers to claim that doctors follow the computer's advice approximately two-thirds of the time. This is because the computer's ability to predict a patient's need for a particular drug may surpass a physician's intuition.

Unlike the human brain, AI can tap the collective knowledge gathered from hundreds of thousands of providers and millions of patient appointments, apart from treatment plans from other doctors given to patients with similar ailments. AI instantly mines its available trove of information to arrive at recommendations.

Today's machines are capable of processing enormous amounts of data and pinpointing patterns that humans are not capable of doing. The complex algorithms that scrutinise this data can make optimal use of electronic medical records to deliver clinically relevant information quickly.

More doctors are recognising that computers give them access to a Web-based repository of medical information and insights, and, in our world today, data is king.

Edmund Khoo Kim Hock

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'AI can help docs make better decisions'. Print Edition | Subscribe