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Ontario doctors say AI use will improve health care

Artificial intelligence technology is already being used in Ontario to predict the future health of people based on existing health data

Ontario doctors expect that health care will improve and it will be easier to detect patient health changes with the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) held an online news conference Wednesday to outline how AI technology has been introduced into some areas of health care and how bigger changes are on the way.

OMA President Dr. Andrew Park said many Ontario doctors are already at the forefront of AI research and how to apply it to improving patient care and outcomes.

"We're looking to harness the power of AI to make predictions about which individuals or populations might get certain diseases, to anticipate which patients will have complications and to optimize our scarce health-care resources," Park said. 

He said one of the key points is that AI technology can quickly absorb reams of information to give physicians a more accurate picture of the patient’s condition.

"Artificial intelligence technologies can quickly and accurately analyze real-time patient data including medical records, genetic information and lifestyle factors, and identify patterns that doctors might overlook," Park explained. 

He said along with improving patient outcomes, the technology can reduce the burden on the health-care system by preventing diseases from progressing to more advanced stages. 

One example was provided by Dr. Amol Verma, a professor in AI Research and Education in Medicine at the University of Toronto. 

He said there is a concern about unplanned transfers to the intensive care unit when a patient suddenly deteriorates and requires more focused care. Verma said St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto is using a new AI tool called CHARTWatch Surgical that can monitor a patient in real-time, minute by minute, around the clock.

"The question is whether there are some subtle clues or signs that artificial intelligence might be able to detect earlier to alert us to patients who might be deteriorating and provide an early warning system," he said.

Verma said all the patient information is stored as an electronic medical record (EMR) which is then analysed by CHARTWatch. Every hour the program generates a new assessment of the patient, that helps the clinical team get a better picture of the patient's progress — or lack of progress.

"And so we implemented that CHARTWatch tool, actually, in about October of 2020. And it has been functioning for nearly three years now. And what we've seen is, compared to the time before we had the tool on our units, where the tool is present, we've seen a 26 per cent reduction in unexpected deaths," Verma said.  

He said the tool also allows the health team to speak with a patient and explore whether the patient wants to advance their treatment if they're getting sicker or to make choices with respect to palliative care. 

Dr. Ibukun Abejirinde, a scientist at Women’s College Hospital Institute for Health System Solutions and Virtual Care, outlined how she is part of a health-care team that is using AI to predict whether a person will develop Type-2 Diabetes, up to five years ahead of time. The project is funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).

She said the development of AI in predicting the possibility of future disease has raised issues that the health team is working on. 

"One is this issue of social acceptability," said Abejirinde.  

"There are questions around the implicit bias of AI; questions around the ethics regarding its use; privacy concerns and data breaches, and who is benefiting from it," she added.

"The second problem has to do with, you know, there's documented evidence of the potential and power of AI. There are also documented failures. How do we minimize the harm and escalate or leverage the good, and the benefits of artificial intelligence at a very large population level," Abejirinde said. 

She said another concern is how to restructure Ontario's health-care system to be able to apply new knowledge in a way that provides earlier interventions to people who are likely to develop disease such as Type-2 Diabetes. 

"So the way we're seeing this is, if we have responsible AI that can be deployed sustainably at scale, we'll be able to make better health-care decisions that will serve the population better."

One of the questions that arose during the news conference was whether AI would eventually replace doctors. Park said he did not believe that would ever happen.

"I think there's always a fear around emerging technologies that we do need to address," said Park. He quoted a recent remark from the president of the American Medical Association. 

"He said that AI won't replace doctors, but doctors who use AI will replace doctors who don't use AI."

Len Gillis covers health care stories as well as the mining industry for


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Len Gillis

About the Author: Len Gillis

Graduating from the Journalism program at Canadore College in the 1970s, Gillis has spent most of his career reporting on news events across Northern Ontario with several radio, television and newspaper companies. He also spent time as a hardrock miner.
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