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Some Alexa Health “Skills” Don’t Comply With Amazon Medical Policies

Posted on July 18, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

It’s becoming predictable: A company offering AI assistant for scheduling medical appointments thinks that consumers want to use Amazon’s Alexa to schedule appointments with their doctor. The company, Nimblr, is just one of an expanding number of developers that see Alexa integration as an opportunity for growth.

However, Nimblr and its peers have stepped into an environment where the standards for health applications are a bit slippery. That’s no fault of theirs, but it might affect the future of Amazon Alexa health applications, which can ultimately affect every developer that works with the Alexa interface.

Nimblr’s Holly AI has recently begun to let patients book and reschedule appointments using Alexa voice commands. According to its prepared statement, Nimblr expects to integrate with other voice command platforms as well, but Alexa is clearly an important first step.

The medical appointment service is integrated with a range of EHRs, including athenahealth, Care Cloud and DrChrono.  To use the service, doctors sign up and let Holly access their calendar and EHR.

Patients who choose to use the Amazon interface go through a scripted dialogue allowing them to set, change or cancel an appointment with their doctor. The patient uses Alexa to summon Holly, then tells Holly the doctor with whom they’d like to book an appointment. A few commands later, the patient has booked a visit. No need to sit at a computer or peer at a smartphone screen.

For Amazon, this kind of agreement is the culmination of a long-term strategy. According to an article featured in Quartz Alexa is now in roughly 20 million American homes and owns more than 70% of the US market for voice-driven assistants. Recently it’s made some power moves in healthcare — including the acquisition of online pharmacy PillPack. It’s has also worked to build connections with healthcare partners, including third-party developers that can enrich the healthcare options available to Alexa users.

Most of the activity that drives Alexa comes from “skills,” which resemble smartphone apps, made available on the Alexa store by independent developers. According to Quartz, the store hosted roughly 900 skills in its “health and fitness” category on the Alexa skills store as of mid-April.

In theory, externally-developed health skills must meet three criteria: they may not collect personal information from customers, cannot imply that they are life-saving by names and descriptions and must include a disclaimer stating that they are not medical devices — and that users should ask their providers if they believe they need medical attention.

However, according to Quartz, as of mid-April there were 65 skills in the store that didn’t provide the required disclaimer. If so, this raises questions as to how stringently Amazon supervises the skills uploaded by its third-party developers.

Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing Nimblr in any way. As far as I know, the company is doing everything the right way. My only critiques would be that it’s not clear to me why its Alexa tool is much more useful than a plain old portal, and that of the demo video is any indication, that the interactions between Alexa and the consumer are a trifle awkward. On the whole, it seems like a useful tool and will likely get better over time.

However, with a growing number of healthcare developers featuring apps Alexa’s skills store, it will be worth watching to see if Amazon enforces its own rules. If not, reputable developers like Nimblr might not want to go there.

DrChrono App Store Illustrates Important Point

Posted on July 16, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

In a recent post, my colleague John Lynn argued that EHRs won’t survive if they stick to a centralized model.  He contends — I think correctly — that ambulatory practices will need to plug best-of-class apps into their EHR system rather than accepting whatever their vendor has available. If they don’t create a flexible infrastructure, they’ll be forced to switch systems when they hit the wall with their current EHR, he writes.

Demonstrating that John, as usual, has read the writing on the wall correctly, I present you with the following. I think it illustrates John’s point exactly. I’m pointing to EHR vendor DrChrono, which just announced that billing and collections company Collectly would be available for use.

Like its peers, Collectly built on the DrChrono API, and will be available in the DrChrono App Directory on a subscription basis. (The billing company also offers custom pricing for large organizations.)

Other apps featured in the app directory include Calibrater Health, which offers text-based patient surveys; Staple Health, a machine learning platform that providers can use to manage at-risk patients and Genius Video, which sends personalized video via text message to educate patients. Payment services vendor Square is also a featured partner.

Collectly, for its part, digitizes paper bills and sends billing statements and collection notices to patients via text or email. The patient messages include a link to the patient portal which offers a billing FAQ, benefits and insurance info and a live chat feature where experts offer info on patient insurance features and payment policy. The live chat staffers can also help patients create an approved payment schedule on behalf of a practice.

While some of the DrChrono apps offer help with well-understood back-office issues – such as Health eFilings, which help practices submit accurate MIPS data –  those functions may be duplicated or at least partially available elsewhere. However, apps like Collectly offer options that EHRs and practice management platforms seldom do. The number of best of breed apps that an EHR won’t be able to replicate natively is going to continue to increase.

Integrating consumer-facing apps like this acknowledges that neither medical practice technology nor its staff is terribly well-equipped to bring in the cash from patients. It may take outside apps like Collectly, which functions like an RCM tool but talks like a patient, to bring in more patient payments in for DrChrono’s customers. In other words, it took a decentralized model to get this done. John called it.

AMA Hopes To Drive Healthcare AI

Posted on July 6, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Last month, the AMA adopted a new policy setting standards for its approach to the use of AI. Now, the question is how much leverage it will actually have on the use in the practice of medicine.

In its policy statement, the trade group said it would work to set standards on how AI can improve patient outcomes and physicians’ professional satisfaction. It also hopes to see that physicians get a say-so in the development, design, validation implementation of healthcare AI tools.

More specifically, the AMA said it would promote the development of well-designed, clinically-validated standards for healthcare AI, including that they:

  • Are designed and evaluated using best-practices user-centered design
  • Address bias and avoid introducing or exacerbating healthcare disparities when testing or deploying new AI tools
  • Safeguard patients’ and other individuals’ privacy and preserve security and integrity of personal information

That being said, I find myself wondering whether the AMA will have the chance to play a significant role in the evolution of AI tools. It certainly has a fair amount of competition.

It’s certainly worth noting that the organization is knee-deep in the development of digital health solutions. Its ventures include the MATTER incubator, which brings physicians and entrepreneurs together to solve healthcare problems; biotech incubator Sling Health, which is run by medical students; Health2047, which brings helps healthcare organizations and entrepreneurs work together and Xcertia, an AMA-backed non-profit which has developed a mobile health app framework.

On the other hand, the group certainly has a lot of competition for doctors’ attention. Over the last year or two, the use of AI in healthcare has gone from a nifty idea to a practical one, and many health systems are deploying platforms that integrate AI features. These platforms include tools helping doctors collaborate with care teams, avoid errors and identify oncoming crises within the patient population.

If you’re wondering why I’m bringing all this up, here’s why. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bother to discuss an AMA policy statement — some of them are less interesting than watching grass grow — but in this case, it’s worth thinking about for a bit.

When you look at the big picture, it matters who drive the train when it comes to healthcare AI. If physicians take the lead, as the AMA would obviously prefer, we may be able to avoid the deployment of user-hostile platforms like many of the first-generation EHRs.

If hospitals end up dictating how physicians use AI technology, it might mean that we see another round of kludgy interfaces, lousy decision-support options and time-consuming documentation extras which will give physicians an unwanted feeling of deja-vu. Not to mention doctors who refuse to use it and try to upend efforts to use AI in healthcare.

Of course, some hospitals will have learned from their mistakes, but I’m guessing that many may not, and things could go downhill from there. Regardless, let’s hope that AI tools don’t become the next albatross hung around doctors’ necks.

Tips On Storing Patient Information In The Cloud

Posted on June 27, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

These days, it’s pretty much a given that providers will store some or all of their data in the cloud, i.e. off-site on a vendor’s servers.  For many providers, doing this is a good idea, as it allows them to avoid buying dedicated hardware or upgrade their own storage capacity.

That being said, all cloud vendors are not made equal, and it’s important to pick the right one. After all, providers can face dire consequences if their patient data is breached. Even if the vendor is at fault, providers will take most or all of the blame.

Before storing data on an outside service, it’s important to check them out carefully.  Here are some tips on evaluating vendors from David McHale of The Doctors Company:

  • Research the vendor’s security practices: Find out of they have a good reputation and strong security policies in place. Whatever time you put into the research is time well spent.
  • Make sure the vendor can handle all of your data: Bear in mind that many cloud services company charge by the amount of storage providers use, so being sure those costs are affordable is important. Also, providers should make sure the vendor can handle the amount of data they’d like to store.
  • Be sure that your data is encrypted at all times: Providers should see to it that their data is encrypted when being uploaded to or downloaded from the cloud. This includes ensuring that browsers or apps require an encrypted connection to the vendor’s server.
  • Patient data should be encrypted when stored in the cloud: Never store data protected by law in the cloud, such as medical information or personal identifiers, unless the stored data is encrypted. Also, don’t let anyone decrypt the data unless they are authorized to do so.
  • Learn how access is stored in your cloud folder: Cloud storage vendors often let providers share access to online folders stored on their servers. and it’s important to know how that sharing works. For example, find out whether data in the folder is read-only or whether users can edit the file, and whether managers can find out who last edited a file.
  • Prepare for the worst: Providers should know what they’ll do if their cloud vendor gets hacked or their data is lost. To find this out, they should read the “terms of service” provisions of their contract, which often states that users have little recourse if their data is breached or lost.

To be sure, cloud storage can be a great way for providers to save money on storage and see that their data is backed up offsite. However, it’s important they do their due diligence and see that the vendor will protect that data carefully.

Medical Practice Use Of Automated Claims Options Growing Slowly

Posted on June 25, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

A new study by a healthcare industry group has concluded that medical and dental practices are processing claims manually rather than going for full automation, a trend which is robbing the industry of very high levels of potential savings. While many physicians and dentists are using web portals to process claims, in most cases they haven’t reached the ”set it and forget it” level, a trend which could undercut possible savings.

The group, CAQH, tracks health plan and healthcare provider adoption of electronically-based administrative transactions for medical and dental practices. CAQH’s research estimates the time required for providers administrative transactions, including verifying a patient’s insurance coverage, sending and receiving payments, checking on the status of claims and handling prior authorization processes.

Its research concluded that despite the potential rewards, the medical and dental practices made only a modest level of progress in automating claims and related business processes over the past year. According to CAQH calculations, practices are still leaving roughly $11.1 billion in savings on the table, an estimate which has climbed by $1.8 billion over the prior year.

If these savings are realized, the majority ($9.5 billion) would end up in providers’ hands. However, many practices just haven’t gotten there yet.

A rise in portal use is certainly an improvement over paper-based claims processes. In fact, some of the increase in potential savings noted by the study is being created by a rise in online portal use.

However, providers’ adoption of fully-electronic claims is basically growing only a small amount or even declining for most transactions that can be done via a portal. For example, for prior authorizations, a big increase in portal use correlated with the decline in the adoption of fully-electronic transactions.

For CAQH, the endgame is getting all providers to automate claims processes complete, so the modest to flat growth in automated claims transactions is not exactly good news. In fact, it’s not a winning situation for medical practices either. According to the group’s estimates, each manual transaction costs practices $4.40 more than each electronic transaction and eats up five more minutes of provider time, which can create a real drag on profits.

Meanwhile, processing a single claim electronically through its lifecycle would save medical practices almost 40 minutes on average, and more than $15 in direct cost savings. Meanwhile, processing a single dental claim from start to finish could save dental practices almost 30 minutes on average and almost $11.75.

The CAQH press release doesn’t spell out what’s holding dentists and doctors back from automating the claims process completely, but it’s not hard to guess was going on. Unlike some providers, medical and dental practices typically don’t have deep pockets or large staff they can make this transition. If health plans want these providers to get on board, they’ll probably have to help them make the transition. However, even health plans haven’t invested in automated claims processing enough either.

Payers Say Value-Based Care Is Lowering Medical Costs, But Tech Isn’t Contributing Much

Posted on June 22, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

A new survey of health insurers has concluded that while value-based care seems to be lowering healthcare costs significantly, they aren’t satisfied with the tools they have to analyze value-based performance.

The report, which draws on a survey sponsored by Change Healthcare, including answers from 120 payers across several types of insurance, including managed Medicare, managed Medicaid and commercial plans.

The topline finding from the report was that value-based care (VBC) has lowered healthcare costs by 5.6% on average, with one-quarter of respondents reporting savings of more than 7.5%.

Meanwhile, the volume of fee-for-service payments has dropped dramatically as a percent of overall payments, now accounting for just 37.2% of all reimbursement among respondents. That number is expected to fall below 26% by 2021.

Not only that, 64% of payers said that provider relationships improved, and 73% said patient engagement improved. This suggests that providers have made some strides in delivering value-based care, as many had a hard time restructuring their business in the past.

That said, some payers haven’t met their own VBC goals. In particular, 66% of payers are investing administrative staffers to support episode-of-care programs given what the study terms “exceptional” medical cost savings. Also, one third to one-half said that episode-of-care models were either very or extremely effective at improving care quality.

However, payers haven’t made much progress as they’d like in rolling out episode-of-care programs. While 21% of payers said they were capable of rolling out a new episode-of-care program in 3 to 6 months, more than a third said the needed a year to launch such a program, 21% said it would take 18 months, and 13% said it would take up to 24 months or more. In other words, many payers are so far behind the curve that the programs they’re designing might be obsolete by the time they roll them out.

What’s more, they’ve had a tough time getting providers interested in episode-of-care programs. Forty-three to 58% reported that it is either very or extremely difficult to get providers to participate in these efforts. Not only that, even when they find interested providers, payers are having a hard time finding common ground with them on episode definitions, budgets, the details of risk and reward sharing and performance metrics. These disagreements could prove a major hurdle to overcome.

In addition, more than half of payers said they were not very satisfied with the current value-based analytics, automation and reporting tools, even though most of the tools were developed in-house by the payers themselves. It could be that given provider resistance, the payers aren’t quite sure about what to look for. Regardless, it seems that payers have a longer-than-expected road to travel here.

AMA Says Med Students Don’t Get Enough EHR Training

Posted on June 20, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Whether or not doctors like it, the U.S. healthcare industry has embraced EHR technology, and in most cases, medical groups depend on it for a number of reasons. Now, the industry may be taking the next step in this direction, with the AMA deciding that it’s time to enshrine EHR use as part of medical education.

At its recent annual meeting, the AMA released a new policy embracing two somewhat contradictory notions. On the one hand, it encouraged med schools to train students on using EHR technology, while on the other, underscored the need for future doctors to get their faces out of the computer screen and engage with patients.

According to the trade group, some medical schools actually limit student access to EHRs. The AMA contends that this is a bad idea. “Medical students and residents need to learn how to ensure quality clinical documentation within an electronic health record,” said AMA board member and medical student Karthik Sarma in a prepared statement. “There is a clear need for medical students to have access to – and learn how to properly use – EHRs well before they enter practice.”

That being said, the group’s report on this subject concedes that there’s a long way to go in making this happen. For example, it notes that many med school faculty members aren’t offering students and residents much of a role model for the appropriate use of and practices in working with EHRs.

To address this problem, the new policy urges medical schools and residency programs to design clinical documentation and EHR training. It also recommends that the training be evaluated to be sure that it’s useful for future medical practice.

The AMA also suggests that med schools and residency programs provide faculty members with EHR professional development options. These lessons will help faculty serve as better role models on EHR use during interactions between physicians and patients.

That being said, there is an inherent tension between these goals and the realities of EHR use. Yes, training students to create good clinical documentation makes sense. At the same time, there are good reasons to worry about the effects of EHRs on student and resident relationships with patients. Unfortunately, this problem seems to be unavoidable as things stand today. Either you train budding physicians to be clinical documentation experts or you encourage them to use EHRs as little as possible during patient encounters.

In short, we’ve already learned that we can’t have both at the same time. So what’s the point of telling medical students that they should try to do the impossible?

Hospitals, Doctors And Patients Impacted By Unplanned EHR Downtime

Posted on June 18, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

EHRs are going to crash and go offline from time to time. But are physicians and hospitals prepared to deal with the fallout when this happens? The answer seems to be “maybe.”

Of course, physicians and hospitals have plenty of reasons to avoid EHR downtime.

For one thing, EHR crashes can have a major impact on care delivery. After all, without EHRs, physicians may have no access to patient data, which could lead to care complications or adverse events.

Also, downtime adds addition pain (and expense) to the situation. According to one estimate, unplanned system failures can cost $634 per physician per hour. Meanwhile, according to Dean Sitting of the University of Texas, a large hospital may lose as much as $1 million per hour when their EHR is down. Those are scary numbers.

Unfortunately, despite the costs, strain to the hospital operations and consumer complaints arising from downtime, many hospitals refuse to invest in preventive technologies such as a backup data center, arguing that they’re just too expensive. As a result, hospitals can be offline for a long time when their EHR system crashes, which typically has a nasty ripple effect.

One example of how EHR downtime affects hospital operations comes from Sutter Health, the largest health system in northern California, whose EHR went offline for more than 24 hours in May. The crash took place when a fire-suppression system was activated in the system’s data center.

During the shutdown, Sutter hospitals followed a series of steps often used by its peers, such as cutting elective surgeries, transporting patients to other hospitals and discharging patients who weren’t very sick. They also switched over to paper records. But despite these efforts, Sutter still faced some problems that weren’t addressed by its plans.

For one thing, younger doctors were thrown a curve ball, as many had never worked with paper charts. This alone gummed up the works during the downtime episode. There were no signs that these doctors made any mistakes due to using paper records, but the risk was there.

Then there were the effects on patients – and some were ugly. For example, when Santa Clara resident Susan Harkema’s father died, she called Sutter Health’s Hospital of the Valley to arrange for removal of his body to a crematorium. According to a story appearing in San Jose Mercury News, Harkema tried a hotline and backup numbers but couldn’t reach anyone due to the outage. It took 8 hours for a hospice nurse to arrive and collect the body, the newspaper reported.

Another patient tweeted that they had to go out of the Sutter system for critical care, which left the treating physicians without care history to review. “It was stressful and scary, and we still aren’t sure we have a successful outcome,” they said.

The net of all of this seems to be that hospital downtime policies could use more than a few tweaks, and more importantly, a better failsafe protecting EHRs from going offline in the first place. Sure, no EHR system is perfect, and crashes are inevitable, but providers can be better prepared.

Geisinger, Penn State Researchers Predict Risk Of Rehospitalization Within Three Days Of Discharge

Posted on June 15, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

In recent times, healthcare organizations have focused deeply on the causes of patient readmissions to the hospital. It’s a problem that affects both physicians and health systems, particularly if the two are not in synch.

To date, providers have focused on readmissions happening within 30 days, largely in an effort to avoid financial penalties imposed by Medicare and Medicaid. However, if the following research is solid, it could push the focus of care much closer to hospital discharge dates.

In an effort which could change the process of avoiding readmissions, a group of researchers has found a way to predict a patient’s risk for needing additional medical care within three days of discharge. The new approach developed jointly by Penn State and Geisinger Health Plan, relies on clinical, administrative and socio-economic data drawn from patients admitted to Geisinger over two years.

The model they created is known as REDD, an acronym which stands for readmission, emergency department or death. Using this model can help physicians target interventions effective and reduce the number of adverse events, according to Deepak Agrawal, one of the Penn State researchers.

You won’t be surprised to hear that readmissions after 30 days are often related to social determinants of health, such as a poor home environment, limited access to services and scant social support. Providers are certainly working to close these gaps, but to date, this has remained a major challenge.

However, the dynamics are different when finding patients who may be readmitted quickly. “Readmissions closer to discharge are more likely to related to factors that are actually present but are not identified at the time the patient is discharged,” said research team leader Sundar Kumara, Allen E. Pearce and Allen M. Pierce Professor of Industrial Engineering with Penn State, who was quoted in a prepared statement.

Another Penn State researcher, Cheng-Bang Chen, added another interesting observation. He noted that the more time that passes after a patient gets discharged, the less likely it is that problems will be caught in time. After all, it may be a while before treating physicians have time to review lengthy hospital records, and the patient could experience a time-sensitive event before the physician completes the review.

To test the REDD program, Geisinger ran a six-month pilot tracking high-risk patients and adding additional services designed to avoid readmissions, ED visits or death.

To treat this population effectively, physicians took a number of steps, such as scheduling appointments with patients’ primary care doctors, educating patients about their medications and post-discharge care plans,  having the inpatient clinical pharmacist review the provider’s recommendations, filling patient prescriptions before discharge and having the hospital check on patients discharged to a skilled nursing facility one day after discharge.

It’s worth noting that there was one major issue which undermined the research results. Penn State reported that because of a shortage of nurses at the hospital during the pilot, they couldn’t tell whether the REDD program met its goals.

Still, researchers are convinced they’re heading in the right direction. “If the REDD model was fully implemented and aligned with clinical workflows, it has the potential to dramatically reduce hospital readmissions,” said Eric Reich, manager of health care re-engineering at Geisinger.

Let’s hope he’s right.

This Futurist Says AI Will Never Replace Physicians

Posted on June 6, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Most of us would agree that AI technology has amazing — almost frightening — potential to change the healthcare world. The thing is, no one is exactly sure what form those changes will take, and some fear that AI technologies will make their work obsolete. Doctors, in particular, worry that AI will undercut their decision-making process or even take their jobs.

Their fears are not entirely misplaced. Vendors in the healthcare AI world insist that their products are intended solely to support care, but of course, they need to say that. It’s not surprising that doctors fret as AI software starts to diagnose conditions, triage patients and perform radiology readings.

But according to medical futurist Bertalan Mesko, MD, Ph.D., physicians have nothing to worry about. “AI will transform the meaning of what it means to be a doctor; some tasks will disappear while others will be added to the work routine,” Mesko writes. “However, there will never be a situation where the embodiment of automation, either a robot or an algorithm, will take the place of a doctor.”

In the article, Mesko lists five reasons why he takes this position:

  1. Empathy is irreplaceable: “Even if the array of technologies will offer brilliant solutions, it would be difficult for them to mimic empathy,” he argues. “… We will need doctors holding our hands while telling us about life-changing diagnoses, their guide to therapy and their overall support.”
  2. Physicians think creatively: “Although data, measurements and quantitative analytics are a crucial part of a doctor’s work…setting up a diagnosis and treating a patient is not a linear process. It requires creativity and problem-solving skills that algorithms and robots will ever have,” he says.
  3. Digital technologies are just tools: “It’s only doctors together with their patients who can choose [treatments], and only physicians can evaluate whether the smart algorithm came up with potentially useful suggestions,” Mesko writes.
  4. AI can’t do everything: “There are responsibilities and duties which technologies cannot perform,” he argues. “… There will always be tasks where humans will be faster, more reliable — or cheaper than technology.”
  5. AI tech isn’t competing with humans: “Technology will help bring medical professionals towards a more efficient, less error-prone and more seamless healthcare,” he says. “… The physician will have more time for the patient, the doctor can enjoy his work in healthcare will move into an overall positive direction.”

I don’t have much to add to his analysis. I largely agree with what he has to say.

I do think he may be wrong about the world needing physicians to make all diagnoses – after all, a sophisticated AI tool could access millions of data points in making patient care recommendations. However, I don’t think the need for human contact will ever go away.