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AI and Telehealth Are Paving the Way for a Future of Abundant Healthcare
Unleashing the transformative power of healthcare tools and delivery systems can help give us all an abundant healthcare future
My childbirth journey began almost two decades ago with the birth of my son, an event marked by a last-minute complication. What was expected to be a routine delivery turned into an unplanned Caesarean section. Despite the unexpected turn of events, I was wrapped in a sense of profound gratitude for the top-notch care we received. Trust in the healthcare system, strengthened by the knowledge that we were in capable hands, offered solace during a time that could have been one marked by profound uncertainty and fear.
As we celebrated my son’s recent 18th birthday and prepared for his imminent departure to college, I reflected on the considerable evolution of healthcare over his lifetime. Technology, particularly the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and telehealth services, is revolutionizing healthcare access, affordability and quality—and it will help lead us to a future in which more people have the abundant healthcare resources we all want and deserve.
When and Where Patients Need It
Take, for instance, the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearance of an AI-enhanced ultrasound scanning technology—news that marks a critical milestone in the revolution of healthcare delivery and access. This system is capable of detecting birth defects with up to 95% accuracy, an impressive leap forward from only about half of birth defects currently being detected prior to birth. While hundreds of AI and machine learning devices have previously gotten the FDA green light, this is the first ultrasound scanning technology to receive this clearance. And it has the potential to both transform obstetricians’ ability to diagnose birth defects and ease the anxieties of expectant parents, serving as a compelling testament to the transformative power of technology in healthcare.
But technology isn’t just transforming the prenatal period—it also holds promise for virtually every stage of life.
Telehealth may be one of the most obvious examples in this transformation, playing a pivotal role in broadening healthcare accessibility. During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth services became an indispensable lifeline for millions of Americans. The regulatory flexibility during this unprecedented time led to an astounding 154% increase in telehealth visits compared to the previous year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, it is estimated that more than a whopping 90% of Americans have now used this technology for care.
This proof of concept should dispel those fears that increased telehealth services would be rampantly misused. In fact, a study co-authored by the right-leaning Americans for Prosperity and the left-leaning Progressive Policy Institute found that telehealth care improves outcomes and reduces costs—without leading to overutilization, which has been a long-standing fear of some opposed to the widespread use of this technology.
Fortunately, some states are taking action to ensure that telehealth remains an arrow in patients’ quivers going forward. In Arizona, for example, the enactment of HB 2454 in 2021 made the state’s temporary telehealth COVID-19 relaxations permanent, leading the nation in the most comprehensive telehealth legislation to date. This law built upon the proof of concept that made the patient the nexus of care.
It freed registered, out-of-state providers to provide care via telehealth, clarified rules to ensure that doctors could more seamlessly seek consults from other out-of-state colleagues, permitted sharing of patients’ medical information and data to provide asynchronous care, and allowed for multiple methods of communication, including telephonic care. This type of reform demonstrates that we can—and should—adapt our regulatory frameworks to harness emerging technologies and encourage innovation.
Far More Than Convenience
These reforms matter, often to the patients who need care the most. Consider Claudia, a mother of a disabled child, who had been making an all-day drive to get needed medical treatment that wasn’t available in their town. Twice a week, Claudia drove three hours each way to Phoenix to get the specialized care her daughter needed. But during COVID and now, because of the Arizona law, she’s able to see the doctor on a computer or a smartphone for most of the appointments, and the mother and daughter only need to make the trip to Phoenix once a month.
But the potential impact of these reforms extends far beyond convenience. They have the power to reshape healthcare delivery completely. For instance, patients requiring constant medical observation can now avoid lengthy hospital stays with 24/7 remote monitoring. Regular online coaching could ensure medication compliance, while immediate online counseling could provide essential mental health support in times of crisis, often allowing for an intervention before a patient’s condition deteriorates from an urgent care situation to an emergency one.
While AI and machine learning is the stuff of media headlines, it has already been used for years now in drug development, diagnostics and medical devices. Before ChatGPT and other online AI tools grabbed public attention, the FDA had already certified hundreds of AI and machine learning devices in recent years.
Don’t Let Red Tape Tie Patients’ Hands
Unfortunately, there is now a rush to impose new regulatory regimes on this emerging technology in healthcare. The threat to innovation and medical progress is real and could stifle the potential benefits of this technology. That is why state and congressional lawmakers must recognize and leverage this potential, fostering an environment conducive to technological innovation in healthcare.
To counter potential biases in AI outcomes, which is a leading concern for policymakers, the healthcare industry is now using larger and more diverse datasets and encouraging the development of competing algorithms. This can provide a broader representation of patients and their conditions and demographic attributes, such as race, ethnicity, gender and age. Moreover, competing algorithms can also reveal and mitigate biases that might otherwise exist in a single algorithm. It is also important to note that AI can be far superior in predicting outcomes than clinical trials, where patient recruitment challenges, overwhelming time and financial demands, and bias have been the rule, not the exception.
As my son prepares for college, I can take comfort in knowing that he will have access to rapid, first-rate healthcare, regardless of his geographical location. Thanks to telehealth, he can instantly access both physical and mental healthcare services, if ever needed, in a timely manner. That’s because technology has extended the promise of high-quality care beyond physical hospital and medical office walls.
The preceding decades are proof that policies encouraging technology in healthcare can indeed lead to abundance. We must continue to advocate for these policies, ensuring that all individuals can benefit from the revolutionary power of technology in healthcare. This is the kind of bold thinking and action that lawmakers across the country have the authority—and obligation—to embrace and pursue.
The journey that began with trust in the hands of skilled medical professionals before, during and after my son’s birth continues today with the promise of telehealth and AI-enhanced diagnostics. And I celebrate what these advances will mean to the expectant families who may be in the position I was 18 years ago—and what they will mean in the years to come.
As I navigate the trials and tribulations of parenting two teenagers, I find myself excited by the evolving landscape of AI in healthcare. I eagerly anticipate new advancements that will further improve our understanding of health and well-being, like the AI sonogram, and I’m hopeful that AI innovators might also use their skills to develop new tools that decode the endless stream of eyerolls and slang from my kids. Far from fearing these changes, we should embrace them, for they offer an exciting future where healthcare is more accessible, affordable, comprehensive and abundant.