AI-powered ‘Doctor Google’ seen as the future of virtual triage

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As artificial intelligence applications continue to proliferate in medicine, healthcare technologists foresee—over the next few years—an AI-powered version of “Doctor Google” that will offer virtual triage capabilities.

“I’m a firm believer that, in five years, we’re going to be using Doctor Google for an awful lot of what we do day to day,” said Marc Probst, chief information officer at Intermountain Healthcare. “That’s because Doctor Google is going to know everything about me. It’s going to have access to my medical records and a massive amount of data about the different diseases and illnesses that are out there.”

Probst made the comments last week during a panel session on artificial intelligence at the Cleveland Clinic’s Medical Innovation Summit.

“We actually couch it in the notion of a virtual assistant for a patient or consumer,” added fellow panelist Sara Vaezy, chief of digital strategy for Providence St. Joseph Health. “It can be as simple as an information retrieval engine that reveals if a medical service is covered by insurance, but it can be as complex as an actual personalized, predictive health companion.”

In between these two capabilities are a number of technological steps, said Vaezy. “The first step is information retrieval, the second step is a concierge or recommendation engine, and the third step can be—what Marc referred to—as virtual triage or diagnosis support and that includes things like Bayesian Decision Trees.”

Currently, health and wellness information from the Cleveland Clinic is available via voice commands on Google Home and Google Assistant-enabled devices.

“People are searching for easy-to-find, timely health information from a trusted source—Cleveland Clinic on Google Assistant provides that,” said Paul Matsen, Cleveland Clinic’s chief marketing and communications officer, in a written statement. “With your smart device, you can have daily access to health tips from Cleveland Clinic experts.”

However, critics charge that consumers can’t rely on voice assistants for medical advice. While Google certainly has a vast quantity of health and wellness information, they contend that it lacks the medical training to discern between consumer-reported symptoms and truly understanding the other factors that go into making a diagnosis, such as personal and family history.

For its part, the Cleveland Clinic cautions that its health and wellness content—now available with Google Assistant—is designed to encourage preventive care and is “intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as medical advice.”

Nonetheless, Vaezy believes that as these virtual assistants get more complex and gain new functionality over time advancements in Doctor Google will enable the technology to progress to higher levels of care.

“The goal is, over time, that you can do diagnosis and even maybe treatment—and, then, an assistant that travels along with you in your pocket that you can talk to or chat with that provides that level of personalized support,” she observes.

Vaezy said that Providence St. Joseph Health is also looking at a “provider-facing analog” to the Doctor Google virtual health assistant for patients. “Those assistants I think have great potential,” she concluded.

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