| March 4, 2019

How Amazon Is Using AI For Its Health Initiatives

Nqaba Matshazi

Nqaba has been working as an investigative journalist for the last 10 years. He has written for various media outlets across the world. Nqaba has been working as an investigative journalist for the last 10 years. He has written for various media outlets across the world.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come a long way since it was first used in the health sector in the 1960s, but there was always an eerie feeling that it was all about the hype and nothing more.

In an interview with Stat News at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s meeting in Orlando, Fla., a senior leader of artificial intelligence at Amazon, Taha Kass-Hout, said there was need to back up the hype surrounding AI with validated results.

Going beyond the hype

However, Kass-Hout, believes that, finally, AI in the healthcare sector has moved beyond the hype to reality citing Amazon Web Service’s first machine learning product in health care, Comprehend Medical.

A priority for Kass-Hout is to see AI tools doing a better job of curating medical information. This way, AI would help whittle the possible conclusion down to two or three options that are right for each patient rather than a list of thousands.

“I’m really happy to see that in 2018, a lot of that dust settled and we started to see real, concrete examples of its use. I hope we see that with AI we’re finally getting to understand what patient has a disease, rather than what disease a patient has — and truly start personalizing care to that level. From a patient perspective and consumer perspective, AI is going to empower them, and for providers and healthcare systems, it’s going to augment clinicians and bridge gaps,” he was quoted saying.

In a separate interview, Kass-Hout used Amazon’s Comprehend Medical as an example of how the company is using AI for healthcare initiatives. He explained that Comprehend Medical “came out of a concrete problem that Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute had in patient matching to clinical trials. They have been on a mission to do really big things in cancer, and the biggest hurdle there was the matching. And that’s where Comprehend Medical grew out in the first place.”

Amazon launched Comprehend Medical, a machine learning service for health information, in late 2018. CNBC reported that Change Healthcare, which processes health claims for pharmacies, is one of the early adopters of the AI system and uses Comprehend Medical to predict whether an insurance claim will be denied or not.

Another example of a practical use for AI that Kass-Hout cited is at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, where they are looking at how to predict availability of beds once the patient is discharged from the operating room and how they can fully optimize their resources on their busiest days.

Kass-Hout suggested a more pragmatic approach to how AI was used in healthcare, saying Amazon’s approach was to start with a concrete problem rather than building a solution first and hoping that there would be takers for it. “Our approach is really far more iterative and more transparent in that way that we always start with a problem and walk backwards from that across every business we do,” he explained.

AI should do the heavy lifting

Kass-Hout, however, pointed out that while AI is supposed to simplify clinicians’ work, there was a worry that the technology was complex and some doctors thought it was adding a burden to their jobs. But he insisted that their vision at Amazon was to simplify things for patients by removing all the “heavy lifting.”

“When AI is implemented the right way, then it’s really helping solve the problem. And when doctors are involved and patients are involved, then they will see the value,” Kass-Hout said.

Before joining Amazon last year, Kass-Hout worked at on President Barack Obama’s precision medicine initiative and as the chief informatics officer at the Food and Drug Administration.

Amazon deepens footprint in health sector

Amazon has been keeping its cards close to its chest when it comes to health. But the company is increasingly launching initiatives that show its commitment.

Amazon’s previous foray into healthcare and AI was last year, when it patented a new version of its virtual assistant Alexa. The new feature will use speech analysis to recognize signs of illness or emotion. The app will detect whether the speaker is ill and offer to sell them medicine.

To illustrate the retail giant’s commitment to healthcare, it acquired online pharmacy PillPack in a deal worth $1 billion, its first venture into prescription medicine.

Amazon is also reported to have set up a Grand Challenge group working on health projects including cancer-related research. The group’s work is largely secretive and little is known about it.

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Trend Watch: Artificial Intelligence and Healthcare

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