How to realize the promise of applying machine learning to healthcare
Despite the hype, it’ll likely be quite some time before human physicians will be replaced with machines (sorry, Star Trek: Voyager fans).
While “smart” technology like IBM’s Watson and Alphabet’s AlphaGo can solve incredibly complex problems, they are probably not quite ready to handle the messiness of qualitative unstructured information from patients and caretakers (“it kind of hurts sometimes”) that sometimes lie (“I swear I’m still a virgin!”) or withhold information (“what does me smoking pot have to do with this?”) or have their own agendas and concerns (“I just need some painkillers and this will all go away”).
Instead, machine learning startups and entrepreneurs interested in medicine should focus on areas where they can augment the efforts of physicians rather than replace them.
One great example of this is in diagnostic interpretation. Today, doctors manually process countless X-rays, pathology slides, drug adherence records, and other feeds of data (EKGs, blood chemistries, etc) to find clues as to what ails their patients. What gets me excited is that these tasks are exactly the type of well-defined “pattern recognition” problems that are tractable for an AI / machine learning approach.
If done right, software can not only handle basic diagnostic tasks, but to dramatically improve accuracy and speed. This would let healthcare systems see more patients, make more money, improve the quality of care, and let medical professionals focus on managing other messier data and on treating patients.
As an investor, I’m very excited about the new businesses that can be built here and put together the following “wish list” of what companies setting out to apply machine learning to healthcare should strive for:
- Excellent training data and data pipeline: Having access to large, well-annotated datasets today and the infrastructure and processes in place to build and annotate larger datasets tomorrow is probably the main defining . While its tempting for startups to cut corners here, that would be short-sighted as the long-term success of any machine learning company ultimately depends on this being a core competency.
- Low (ideally zero) clinical tradeoffs: Medical professionals tend to be very skeptical of new technologies. While its possible to have great product-market fit with a technology being much better on just one dimension, in practice, to get over the innate skepticism of the field, the best companies will be able to show great data that makes few clinical compromises (if any). For a diagnostic company, that means having better sensitivty and selectivity at the same stage in disease progression (ideally prospectively and not just retrospectively).
- Not a pure black box: AI-based approaches too often work like a black box: you have no idea why it gave a certain answer. While this is perfectly acceptable when it comes to recommending a book to buy or a video to watch, it is less so in medicine where expensive, potentially life-altering decisions are being made. The best companies will figure out how to make aspects of their algorithms more transparent to practitioners, calling out, for example, the critical features or data points that led the algorithm to make its call. This will let physicians build confidence in their ability to weigh the algorithm against other messier factors and diagnostic explanations.
- Solve a burning need for the market as it is today: Companies don’t earn the right to change or disrupt anything until they’ve established a foothold into an existing market. This can be extremely frustrating, especially in medicine given how conservative the field is and the drive in many entrepreneurs to shake up a healthcare system that has many flaws. But, the practical reality is that all the participants in the system (payers, physicians, administrators, etc) are too busy with their own issues (i.e. patient care, finding a way to get everything paid for) to just embrace a new technology, no matter how awesome it is. To succeed, machine diagnostic technologies should start, not by upending everything with a radical solution, but by solving a clear pain point (that hopefully has a lot of big dollar signs attached to it!) for a clear customer in mind.
Its reasons like this that I eagerly follow the development of companies with initiatives in applying machine learning to healthcare like Google’s DeepMind, Zebra Medical, and many more.