AI Use in Healthcare lncreasing Slowly Worldwide

Marcia Frellick

May 06, 2019

Acceptance and use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare have changed little since 2018 in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, a new Medscape survey of physicians in those regions indicates.

In 2019, only 20% of respondents say that AI has changed the way they practice, up from 15% in last year's survey. US physicians were the least likely to say it had changed practice (11%), compared with 30% of physicians in Latin America and 18% in Europe.

For both 2018 and 2019 surveys, Medscape polled 1500 physicians in those regions (500 in each region) to gauge thoughts regarding AI. This year, the global team expanded the survey with additional questions and presented the findings at the eyeforpharma meeting in Barcelona, Spain, in March.

US Lags in Comfort With AI

Not everyone is comfortable with AI, survey results show. Nearly half (49%) of US physicians agreed with the statement, "I am uncomfortable and/or anxious about using AI-powered software," as did approximately one third of physicians in Europe (35%) and Latin America (30%).

Interestingly, those percentages were relatively unchanged from 2018 for Europe (36%) and Latin America (31%), but the percentage increased in the United States, climbing from 41%.

The European countries polled included France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Latin American countries included Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

At least one third of physicians in the three global regions expressed fear that AI-powered software could be a threat to the physician's role. Agreement rates ranged from 33% in Latin America to 37% in Europe. Last year, the proportion of respondents who agreed with this was slightly lower, at 30% to 31%, for each of the three regions.

Few Using Smart Speakers

Respondents from the three regions also reported little uptake of voice-controlled smart speakers, such as Amazon's Alexa or Google Home, in physician practices (between 8% and 16% overall). Use remained the same in Europe and Latin America from the year before and increased slightly in the United States.

Use was higher among physicians aged 34 to 44 years than among both older and younger age groups, the authors report.

When asked what they might theoretically use smart speakers for in their practices, physicians said they would

  • Look up drug information (54%)

  • Check for drug interactions (53%)

  • Look up treatment guidelines (52%)

  • Look up disease/condition information (49%)

  • Hear updates from conferences/clinical trials (47%)

  • Listen to medical news (46%)

  • Add notes to a patient's electronic health record (EHR) (45%)

Physicians expressed wariness about pharmaceutical company involvement in decision-making tools. Whereas nearly half of respondents said they would be likely or very likely to use a voice-controlled clinical decision support system offered by a government institution (48%), a hospital system (47%), or an independent medical information provider (46%), the proportion dropped to slightly less than one third (31%) if the tool were offered by a technology company and to just 18% if it were from a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

The top reason physicians gave for being less comfortable with decision support offered by pharmaceutical companies was fear of bias (63% gave that reason).

Only 19% of physicians in the survey said they would be comfortable using smart speakers during a patient consultation.

WhatsApp Takes Off in Latin America

Regarding patient communication, few physicians reported using digital tools for services such as online appointment booking, automated SMS (short-message service) appointment reminders, and text and image messaging, with one notable exception: 63% of physicians in Latin America are using WhatsApp to communicate with patients (vs 16% in Europe and none in the United States.)

All physicians showed reluctance to trust management of personal data, such as EHR information or ancestry data, to technology startups owned by or backed by pharmaceutical companies. Trust in those entities ranged from 19% of physicians in the United States to 23% in Europe and 35% in Latin America.

Respondents expressed more confidence when the startups were backed by venture capitalists. Trust in that model ran at 31% among US physicians, 40% among those in Europe, and 61% in Latin America.

Mixed Signs of Confidence for AI's Potential

Although the survey shows that use of AI is still in its beginning stages, survey responses indicate varying levels of belief in its potential.

Most physicians (70%) said AI-powered software would make their decisions more accurate in the future, and 66% said they would be likely to use it if it were better than humans at some diagnostic tasks.

However, only 44% of physicians overall said they believe AI will be as good as or better than physicians at diagnostic tasks.

Women were more likely than men to say AI won't ever diagnose more accurately than physicians, and they were less likely to believe AI could improve the accuracy of physicians' decisions. Primary care physicians were also more likely to disagree that AI will make physicians' decisions more accurate.

Sixty-eight percent of physicians overall agreed that AI-powered software will make it easier to focus on other important tasks in the future.

"In the short to medium term, digital tools used by physicians are not going to be replaced with AI or voice-enabled applications," the report authors conclude.

"Doctors are interested in tools that will work seamlessly within their practice and improve their day-to-day tasks," they write. "[T]herefore the introduction of AI within the workplace will remain low until it reaches that caliber."

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