By: Steve Bond, BScPhm, RPh, CDE

Anyone who hasn’t heard of Artificial Intelligence or A.I. has either been in a coma or living under a rock for the last 20 years. There have been predictions on how learning machines will impact many industries including healthcare. What exactly is A.I.? In simple terms, it involves teaching computers to think more like humans. In traditional programming, a computer is given a series of tasks by the programmer. Unfortunately, the rule is garbage in/garbage out. That is, if the programmer doesn’t give the computer all the possibilities, when it comes to an outcome not pre-programmed, it stops and doesn’t know what to do. A.I. uses complex algorithms to predict outcomes and learns from those outcomes.

So why is A.I. considered the “fourth industrial revolution?” A.I. is good at analysing vast amounts of data in a fraction of the time it would take our meager brain to process. So, will A.I. replace your pharmacist or doctor? Thankfully not in my lifetime. In addition, A.I. is good at things like pattern recognition and doing those mundane tasks like sifting through data. It can help to predict outcomes, but humans are far better at the highly valued skills of empathy, creativity, and common sense. For example, a study was conducted looking at predicting hip fractures from x-rays. They compared A.I. versus trained radiologists using A.I. input. It was found that combining technology with doctors proved to be more accurate than simply using A.I. alone

There is also one element that A.I. cannot predict well: human behaviour. Several years ago. I was asked to review an older patient’s medications in her home. As part of this service, I was asked to empty out the medicine cabinet and take away unnecessary or expired medications. When I did this, I was surprised to find three full bottles of Lasix, and a water pill often used for heart failure. When I asked why these were all here untouched, she responded that her doctor wanted her to take them, but she didn’t like the way they made her feel. She really liked her doctor and didn’t want to upset him by telling him she wasn’t taking them, so she filled them on time every three months. A.I. would not have predicted this (nor did I till until I visited). I will post as a reminder that any unused medications can be brought to the pharmacy for free disposal – never flush them.

There is no doubt that A.I. will play a role in the future of healthcare. It is a powerful tool that improves efficiency, identifies problems faster and in some cases more accurately than humans and can lead to less costly and more equitable healthcare. It is important to note that like an MRI machine, it is simply a tool and needs to be paired with the compassionate, empathetic, and creative minds of healthcare professionals such as talented doctors, nurses and, of course, pharmacists. Take care of yourselves and each other.