National Director of AI for Health & Life Sciences at Microsoft, Tom Lawry on changing outdated and inefficient work processes and delivering AI responsibly

Congratulations on the publication of your latest book – Hacking Healthcare – How AI and the Intelligence Revolution will Reboot and Ailing System. Please tell us what led you to write it

My previous book, AI in Health – A Leader’s Guide to Winning in the New Age of Intelligent Health Systems, was written in 2019 and published in the spring of 2020.  It put forward the notion that AI would become an integral part of how we reform healthcare to be more effective and responsible to the needs of populations while allowing us to truly personalize care down to the individual level. It also introduced the concept of an Intelligent Health Revolution and predicted the emergence of Intelligent Health Systems which are different than the Traditional Health Systems people think of today.

Just as this book was coming to market the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It changed everything.  It forced health systems to rethink existing processes to quickly respond to this global health crisis. For consumers, the pandemic cut to the core of how the system affects what they universally cared about, which is their health, the safety of their families and economic security.

The good news about the pandemic is that it showed that clinical and health leaders around the world are capable of agile change and transformation.  Systems known for changing at glacial speed suddenly began changing at warp speed.

My new book picks up where the old one left off.  It chronicles the good news of the pandemic which includes all of the things we learned and how the pandemic accelerated the use of AI. Health leaders stepped up to fight and win the battle. The “weapons of choice” used to drive agile transformation were AI driven solutions.

And so, after chronicling the lessons we all learned (and are continuing to learn) my new book looks ahead to define how we can apply our learnings to solving other big challenges in healthcare including things like chronic disease, mental health, the opioid crisis and the other issues affecting the health and wellbeing of citizens.

In what areas do you see the next big advances in medical/health AI?

Over the short term (next 1-3 years) we’ll see current and emerging AI capabilities being applied to make the current system more efficient. Today, providers are facing strong financial headwinds.  We’re seeing innovative provider organizations utilizing AI to improve clinical and operational workflows.  The dual-benefit of getting this right is that it also helps address the workforce crisis we have, including reducing factors that lead to clinician burnout and improving clinician efficiencies by automating many repetitive, low-value activities we put on them every day.

Here’s an example. A study by Stanford shows that physicians spend more time in EHRs doing documentation than they do actually seeing patients. The use of what’s known as ambient intelligence in an exam room automates much of this drudgery. One study notes that the use of a system by Nuance saves an average of seven minutes of a physician’s time.  Multiple this by the number of patients seen in a day and it produces measurable results.

As we look beyond the short term, we’ll see a new model emerge among some providers as they move towards becoming true intelligent health systems.  These are organizations that will go beyond the use of AI to improve the efficiency of how traditional health systems operate. They will differentiate themselves by treating data as a valuable asset and use AI to rethink and improve processes across all channels, touchpoints and experiences. This new approach will be applied to improve the experiences of both consumers and clinicians.

What are you most concerned about the future of AI in medicine?

We are increasingly demonstrating the value of AI in health and medicine in improving outcomes and experiences for patients and health consumers.  As this happens, the greatest challenge we face is whether AI will be a force for good for all citizens, not just some citizens.

We are seeing and documenting instances where the biases and inequities found in the real or physical world of healthcare are crossing over to the digital world through algorithms.

AI can be deployed in keeping with all laws. It can be compliant with all regulations like HIPAA or GDPR yet still be unethical and perpetuate the biases that marginalize populations of people.

As AI becomes more pervasive and impactful in the delivery of health and medical services, we must champion, and require, that it’s done in ways that are fair and responsible.  I’m proud of the responsible AI efforts Microsoft brought forward long before this was a popular topic. We’ve had an Office of Responsible AI for years that has created tools, protocols and processes which have guided our development and deployment of AI-driven solutions.  We’re now taking much of what we’ve learned and pushing resources out into the market to help others in building their own approaches to delivering AI responsibly.

Beyond AI itself, the broader discussion of what I call “Health Tequity” must include giving voice to the need to equal access to reliable connectivity. For example, there are parts of the United States today that do not have connectivity sufficient to support things like telehealth visits. Another area is digital literacy.  Many people did not grow up using computers.  Some of this is generational. The lack of digital literacy can also be tied to social determinants.

What do you consider your greatest achievement and failure? 

The greatest achievement I guess would be the culmination of all of the small steps and experiences I’ve had through the years that led me to what I do today.  Some of these were planned but many were experiences that were purely happenstance. I spent a decade as a health system executive then left a perfectly good career in health management to do two venture-backed start-ups in the early days of hosted apps for healthcare. I then went to work for two of the best companies on the planet – Microsoft and GE.  Along the way, this path allowed me to interact and learn from so many talented clinicians, health execs and data scientists who are finding ways to make health and medicine better. I’m constantly learning from those on the front lines of health systems around the world.

My greatest failure (there have been many) probably was when the second start up I created went through a spectacular “scorch the earth crash landing.”   This taught me that you learn a lot more by failing than you do by succeeding.

What advice would you give someone starting their career in medicine or medical AI?

First, recognize that everyone is early in the journey in the use of AI in health and medicine.  We have so much more to learn in how we leverage it to do good in the world. We will likely look back a few years from now and chuckle at the use cases we’re excited about today compared to what is coming.

Most importantly, embrace AI and learn how to make it your superpower (this doesn’t just apply to those starting their careers).  Do this by understanding what AI is good at compared to all of the skills and characteristics needed in health and medicine that remain unique to humans (and will remain unique for many decades to come).  AI is simply a set of tools that allow us to “outsource” a limited set of functions normally done by the human brain.  As such, AI in health only adds value in one of two ways. It adds value by automating or augmenting work done by humans.

Automating work means things done by a human today will be done by a smart machine going forward.  These are jobs consisting of highly repetitive activities with little variance in the work being done. Augmenting work means that AI will automate some aspects of work done by humans but won’t replace them. 

Augmenting work is where AI will shine in supporting all knowledge workers in healthcare. It’s a vehicle by which we can change outdated and inefficient work processes.  The important point here is that such change requires clinical and health leaders to think and act differently. 

The responsible use of AI, along with others will be discussed at the annual AIMed Global Summit 2023. Book your place now! 

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Tom Lawry serves as National Director of AI for Health & Life Sciences at Microsoft and works with health and medical organizations to plan & implement AI and intelligent health solutions that improve the quality and efficiency of health and medical services delivered around the globe. Prior to Microsoft, Tom was founder and CEO of Verus, a healthcare software company named as one of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Washington Companies for three consecutive years and to the Deloitte Fast 500 Technologies list. For twelve years he served in various executive management roles in hospitals and health systems.

Tom has two books to his credit focused on Data and AI and the digital transformation of health and medicine. His latest book, Hacking Healthcare, was published in July 2022 and named an Amazon Best Seller (medical informatics, knowledge management and biotech categories). His previous book, AI in Health, was published in seven languages and a HIMSS Best Seller.