Artificial Intelligence for Health Care

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on February 20, 2022
5 min read

Artificial intelligence (AI) may have once sounded like science fiction, but it’s now a part of our daily lives. Simply put, AI is the use of computers to do things that used to require human intelligence. It’s at work when you check a traffic map for the fastest route, get a movie tip from your streaming service, or use a chatbot online.

AI’s full potential in the area of health care is still being explored. But doctors already use it to read medical scans, help diagnose diseases, assist in treatment decisions, and help discover new drugs. Doctors and researchers are now using AI in the fight against COVID-19.

As AI-based technology sweeps through health care, hundreds of medical devices based on AI ML (machine learning) technology are now being marketed in the United States, according to the FDA.

Doctors and researchers use AI for a wide range of medical conditions. Among them:

Diabetic retinopathy happens when high blood sugar damages blood vessels in your retina. It’s the leading cause of vision loss in people who have diabetes.

The FDA approved the first AI-based medical device for this condition in 2018, called IDx-DR. It’s a software program that analyzes images of your eye to detect mild diabetic retinopathy.

As a screening tool, IDx-DR tells your primary care eye doctor whether to refer you to an ophthalmologist for further tests. Early detection, prompt treatment, and follow-up care can help keep diabetic retinopathy from causing severe vision loss.

Each year, more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke. That’s what happens when a blockage keeps oxygen-rich blood from reaching a part of your brain. Reducing the amount of time it takes to get treatment when this happens is critical in lessening the impact of a stroke. Doctors are using an AI algorithm to analyze CT scans for signs of a stroke. If a possible blockage is found, the Viz.AI Contract software sends a text message to a neurovascular specialist, a health care professional who deals with blood vessel disorders. This notification system helps alert a specialist more quickly so they can review the data and provide faster treatment, which could lessen the negative effects of a stroke.

Doctors are turning to AI to help them with tests that help diagnose heart conditions. An echocardiogram is an ultrasound test widely used to detect heart disease. Caption Guidance is a type of AI-assisted software that creates high-quality ultrasound images of your heart. The software is especially useful for medical professionals who may not be experts in echocardiograms. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., claiming about 647,000 lives each year.

The EKG test checks your heart’s electrical system. AI-based EKGs can detect problems such as irregular heart rhythms, including atrial fibrillation (AFib), even before symptoms are noticeable. AFib increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, and other heart problems. There are also AI-based portable EKG devices for at-home use, and you can even use an EKG program on your cellphone to analyze your heart rhythm. But many things affect how accurate these programs are, so they can’t be used to diagnose any condition.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States. An AI-assisted device called GI Genius can be a second pair of eyes to help doctors detect suspicious growths that may otherwise get overlooked during a colonoscopy.

The system uses algorithms to look for areas in the colon that could be lesions or polyps. If it finds an area of concern, it highlights it on the view that the doctor sees from the endoscope camera and also makes a sound.

The device doesn’t replace the use of a biopsy to test a tissue sample for cancer. It simply alerts the doctor that a suspected polyp is present, so they can take a closer look.

About one in every eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. AI-based software called Paige Prostate helps pathologists identify suspicious areas in digitally scanned images from prostate biopsies. Pathologists are health care providers that analyze tissue samples. The software finds areas in the biopsy image that are likely to be cancerous but weren’t spotted by the pathologist.

When a pathologist reviews the areas identified by Paige Prostate, they also think about your medical history and the need for more testing of the tissue sample before they make a diagnosis.

Wrist fractures are typically caused by a fall. They’re one of the most common types of bone fractures. Traditionally, doctors use an X-ray to check for a wrist fracture. But since there are several small bones here, a fracture may not show up clearly. Now, they can use AI-based OsteoDetect software to help identify a fracture and its location on the X-ray image.

Without widespread testing, it’s a challenge to detect COVID-19 in people who don’t have symptoms. To help with this, the FDA has given an emergency use authorization to an AI-based screening device called the Tiger Tech COVID Plus Monitor. It can be used by trained personnel to screen people who don’t have a fever -- a common symptom of COVID-19 -- in locations like schools, airports, and workplaces.

This device detects biomarkers that may point to the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It’s an armband with embedded light sensors and a small computer processor. It checks your blood flow and pulse rate to predict excessive blood clotting, which can be seen in people who have COVID-19. Even though the device may help identify COVID-19 without symptoms, it can’t be used to diagnose the infection.

Researchers are also working to develop new AI-powered imaging tools that focus on the lungs and heart. This can help improve care by helping doctors find out how severe a case of COVID-19 is and predict how well you may respond to treatment. Federal agencies and drug companies are using AI to speed up the discovery of new drugs and repurpose existing ones to fight the disease.

As AI continues to transform health care, you can rest assured that it is unlikely to replace humans. Doctors and other health care providers will always be needed to offer the human connection and judgment that is so important to medical care.