Zebra Medical Vision’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Orit Wimpfheimer, on the future of radiology and how to juggle a high-flying career with being a mom of nine
Dr. Orit Wimpfheimer is a diagnostic radiologist who founded her Israel-based teleradiology company in 2001. She joined Zebra Medical Vision, initially as clinical director, and now as chief medical officer, bringing her experience to direct and promote AI technology
What initially sparked your interest in medicine and subsequently, AI in medicine?
I came from a family of doctors. My father, uncle and two brothers are all doctors so I grew up in a family where medicine was central to many of our conversations around the dinner table. Initially, I didn’t think medicine was for me because as I went through medical school and the rotations in different departments, I found I wasn’t particularly natural or happy being so hands-on with patients.
What I genuinely love is solving the puzzle behind what’s wrong with a patient. Gradually, as I studied more, I realized medicine has many domains. Some of them, like radiology, allows me to delve into the science, to be ‘the doctor of doctors’ and help other physicians with the diagnoses and care of patients.
What was your first encounter with medical AI?
I’ve been a practicing radiologist for more than twenty years and was trained in New York before moving to Israel where I was born. I tried to find a way to remain a doctor in the American healthcare system while being able to live in Israel, so I started a teleradiology company with my partner. Teleradiology is very common right now but back then, twenty years ago, we were considered the pioneers in the field.
We saw the company as an experiment that turned out well! The company allows me to be an American doctor based in Israel, analyzing images for hospitals on the East Coast. So I’ve been working remotely with physicians, trauma surgeons and emergency doctors and inpatients for twenty years without actually meeting them. On top of that, I also worked with mammography here in Israel for a while.
A few years ago, I grew bored with what I was doing even though I am still excited and proud to be at the frontier of teleradiology. I wanted new challenges or to be at the frontier of another medical breakthrough again. I knew I was lacking something in my life and that was when I came across AI and its potential in radiology. I began researching all the startups here in Israel and decided I’d want to work for Zebra, a company with a strong medical AI focus. I worked my way up and here I am today. I do believe AI is the frontier of imaging and radiologists who do AI are going to replace radiologists who don’t. I want to be at that frontier of medicine.
Could your career have taken a different direction?
No. I made the final decision to become a doctor when I was in 11th grade. It’s fascinating growing up listening to all the medical cases and caring for patients. They brought joy and sparked my interest. My husband is a lawyer and businessman so the conversations around our dinner table with our children are now split between medicine, law and business. I’ve learned a lot about business through my husband in these conversations. Many of them are actively used in my career so I believe I am much more business-oriented now.
Do you want your children to become doctors or lawyers?
My son is in medical school and I have a daughter who has also shown interest. But then I also have children who are in technology, mechanical engineering, and environmental science. We encourage them to explore in as many different directions as they can.
You’ve been at Zebra since 2019. What have you learned over the past few years?
I was and am still fascinated with AI. But when I first joined Zebra, I felt there were many things to learn and I had to catch up pretty quickly since the field moves rapidly. An important thing I have learned is to always involve the physicians. We are creating algorithms to be used in medical settings so we need insiders, who have a thorough understanding of the healthcare system and medicine to impose their thoughts into the design. That’s why my role as a clinical director has become critical and important. I am bringing a real radiologist voice into our research and products. I believe we need to combine the expertise of doctors and AI professionals to conquer the world and improve outcomes of care.
What are you most excited about the future of AI in radiology?
I think AI is an incredible tool, but it’s unharnessed right now because AI is very new and everyone is trying to figure out the best use of it. AI has its complexities and concepts that we need to master. For example, generalizability. When we create an algorithm, we want it to be effective in Japan as well as in California and other parts of the world. We need to master the concepts of sensitivity and specificity. We want the algorithm to be sensitive, but we don’t want to create a lot of noise or false positives in the system. Likewise, we need to figure out the best way to fit the algorithm into radiologists’ workflow, so it doesn’t slow them down but helps and support them.
Zebra is working hard to overcome all these challenges and I have learned a lot in the process. I believe once we can conquer some of these main issues, AI will be a powerful tool for radiology and global healthcare. Zebra is seven years old now and it’s considered a relatively mature startup. We are now focused on population screening for chronic health conditions and look into what big data has to offer. There are a lot of data on a CT scan that’s unused and gone to waste. If we can figure out how to use that data to make patients healthier, that is a real and huge benefit.
Radiologists, in general, focus on acute conditions. They don’t necessarily divert their attention to chronic conditions because it’s not an immediate concern for the patient. If AI can work in the background and highlight all those chronic conditions, identify patients who are untreated for those conditions and bring them to treatment, we can improve patients’ quality of life by attending to some of them at an earlier phase and prevent long-term complications. On a financial note, if we can halt the progression of these diseases, it’s saving the healthcare system a lot of money. This is the recipe for success recipe for AI and I am excited about where Zebra is heading.
AI is challenged by many things – from data and equity, to trust. Do you think we can overcome them all?
Ideally, it’d be nice to have a global health initiative to consolidate data from different countries and let everyone use it. But in reality, we know that won’t work perfectly since there are people who do not wish to share. A more practical approach would be to develop an algorithm using these amounts of data and, over time, improve it with other datasets and make sure it’s as generalizable as possible.
At Zebra, we are trying to overcome this data issue by working with healthcare providers like Intermountain Health in Utah to build the biggest data repository ever held by a private company. We also collect data from communities within Israel. We have 30 years’ worth of healthcare information and imageries and a wide representation of ethnic groups spread out in different parts of the world.
I’d like to stress that I believe population health has a huge potential for providing value-based care by reaching out to patients who we normally wouldn’t attend to. Not every ethnic group is getting the same quality of care unless healthcare is democratized. I believe AI can be the tool to solve these problems and reduce the big disparity in the quality of care people received but we need medicine to join forces with the industry.
That’s why we are always looking for great partners from different hospitals and healthcare systems to deploy our AI tools and learn how we can best treat different patient populations at a global level. We are also open to new thoughts and ideas because we are excited about the path we are taking now.
What do you consider your biggest achievement?
The ability to balance my professional career and family. I have nine children and four grandchildren and it’s extremely important for me that my family wouldn’t impede my career and vice versa. That means I must work extra hard in both domains. I often find that 24 hours a day is not enough. I had to push myself all the time to juggle between these two dominant pillars of my life. I remember getting an award at the end of my medical school and I walked across the stage with two little boys and my newborn baby girl in hand. My three-year-old son took the award for me and I told him, “You earned that just as much as I did because we did it together.”
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Never be afraid to fail. It’s already a failure if you haven’t tried.
What advice would you give to someone starting a career in medical AI?
Stay current. Keep up with your reading and learning, whether it’s from the newspapers, medical journals or colleagues. Medicine is always changing. My father used to tell me when I was young, 50% of what they are teaching you in medical school, as you will realize over time, is wrong. He witnessed that in his medical career, and I’ve learned in my medical career that science can indeed be extremely dynamic. Stay abreast with what’s going in the field and be the best doctor you can be.
What would you tell your younger self?
I would tell her that sometimes you just need to stop and enjoy the moment. Don’t always run forward. This is something I have been trying to teach my children too. If you’d like to take a gap year and do something different, go for it. I succeeded at a young age. Looking back, I could still have succeeded three or four years later and used that time to do different things and gained a lot more varied experience. I promote that with my children. It’s taking them longer to settle on their careers, but they have done more things than me when I was their age.
Greatest challenge overcome?
My goal is to balance my career and family and that was a huge challenge. I delved into it with an open mind and held onto the belief that I could overcome it. It’s still ongoing. My eldest child is 28 years old and my youngest is eight. So I need to make sure the younger ones grow up with a mom, who happens to be busy, but will make sure they get the attention they need in their growing years. I make sure we have time to talk every day. I will tell my youngest about my work at Zebra while she will tell me about her third-grade life. I guess this challenge will remain with me forever because after my children have all grown up, I will still have grandchildren who need my attention. But it’s just so rewarding.
Dr. Orit Wimpfheimer will be speaking at AIMed’s virtual multi-track CME-accredited event, ‘Imaging’ on 29th and 30th June.
View the full, exciting two day agenda and book here