The Medical Futurist called them the “e-patients” or “empowered patients” because they are “electronic, equipped, enabled, engaged”. They are probably “an expert of their own medical condition” too. AIMed had discussed this before, technology facilitated the flow of information, and thus, we foresee a gradual shift in the traditional patient-physician relationship. Patients are slowly drifting away from being passive receivers of care. They wish to be informed and be more involved in certain medical decision-making processes. 

A recent qualitative study conducted by The Medical Futurist Institute and published in the BMJ showed that in spite of the change in patient’s views towards medicine; empathy, time and attention remain the core of care. The study interviewed 11 e-patients of different nationalities about their opinions of what constitute an e-patient and what do they expect from their physicians. 

While there is a no specific form of e-patient, the 11 respondents believe someone who takes initiatives, curious about their medical conditions and uses technologies to manage their health or to learn more, can be seen as e-patients. At the same time, e-patients demonstrate empathy towards their physicians. They believe making the time to visit their physicians is to establish a kind of partnership rather than a consultation. 

The tech-savvy vs The tech-amateur 

Interestingly, these 11 participants urged healthcare professionals to recognize the values and power of technology. The patients expressed that physicians should abort the attitude of “I don’t need a machine, I know myself”. They hope that in near future, physicians will cater more time for patients to discuss their medical conditions. Physicians will also be less skeptical towards patients who Google their symptoms or medications and seek clarifications with them on what they have found. 

Although these 11 patients are at all representative of the patient population, their feedbacks are heartening. Unfortunately, these tech-savvy patients are still considered the minority when the use of wearables, artificial intelligence (AI) and other new technology in medicine and healthcare are coming of age. Earlier, the American Medical Association published a commentary to address the emerging concern of how to address patients when AI becomes part of the caregiving team. 

Predominantly, the article emphasized on the importance of given consent. Regardless of the situation, physicians are required to have the knowledge of that particular piece of technology he/she is about to employ and be able to explain it functions and rationale to the patients. However, the black-box problem of AI, or the inability to know what goes on in the process of turning data into algorithm, may hinder physicians’ understanding and explanations.  

AI may render empathy back to us 

This challenge is aggravated by patients’ own perception of AI and how should physicians reassure patients when possible errors occur. The paper concluded with the many challenges that faced by physicians, MedTech companies and designers presently. It looks grim at a glance because there are still many challenges waiting to be overcome. 

Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute said in his new book “Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence can make healthcare human again”, that eventually, AI will take over the mundane tasks from human. Leaving physicians to provide the fundamentals, such as care and compassion to patients. 

Topol admitted that we are in early days and indeed, as highlighted by all the challenges mentioned above, we still have a long way to go. It is unsure when the promise will be delivered. Meanwhile, trust and faith keep us all going. 

Check out AIMed Magazine Volume 2, Issue 1, as we interviewed Eric Topol about his thought-provoking article, “High performance medicine: the convergence of human and artificial intelligence” published on Nature Medicine this January. 

Author Bio
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Hazel Tang

A science writer with data background and an interest in current affair, culture and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.