Since the days when we all learned the power of Google, people have been using the internet (credible and sketchy sites alike) to 'diagnose' ailments and treat mysterious symptoms. Now, with the explosion of AI-powered apps and chatbots, including ChatGPT and symptom checkers such as Babylon Health, it's never been easier to get health advice online.
Unlike your doctor, these systems are accessible 24/7 and provide information in mere seconds. In a healthcare industry that can often make you feel ignored or dismissed, it's tempting to opt for this kind of instant feedback, but relying on AI for health information can make it difficult to determine its quality and how relevant it is to your symptoms. The silver lining, experts say? AI technology may enable you to become more informed and empowered to take stronger charge of your health.
Using AI for medical advice has its risks
There's a lot to consider before taking any health-related AI guidance seriously:
Inaccuracies. AI systems make mistakes. "Synthetic media systems are designed to make up plausible sounding sequences of text — there will always be misinformation mixed in, and it will be indistinguishable in how authoritative it sounds," says Emily M. Bender, PhD, a computational linguist at the University of Washington. Also, AI tools tend to "hallucinate" — or make up info out of the blue.
Biases. AI models only know what they are trained on, and if the datasets contain biases (racial, gender, or otherwise) or gaps (see: the lack of women's health research), those can get encoded into the system and then perpetuated by sharing this biased information with you. For example, it's possible that because women are more likely to have their pain dismissed by doctors, AI models could do the same.
Privacy concerns. It's not always clear how your data will be handled by AI companies, leading to worries about the security of that information, according to Joanna Smolenski, PhD, an assistant professor and clinical ethicist at Baylor College of Medicine. "Once you've shared your information, you can't necessarily get it back," she says.
Dehumanization. AI cannot provide the empathy and emotional support many patients expect from their doctors. "Even for a relatively run-of-the-mill doctor's encounter, there's something very substantial that's potentially going to be lost" if the human element of medicine isn't there, says Smolenski.
But you can use AI to your advantage
Anyone who's played around with ChatGPT knows it's not going to replace the songwriters or authors we know and love, says Smolenski. "Just as ChatGPT right now is not Bob Dylan, it's also not as good as a medical doctor who's trained for many, many years to be an expert in her field," she adds.
However, when used in conjunction with your doctor visits, AI platforms could make your experience in the healthcare system a little bit better by:
Offering personalized information. "I've heard doctors complain about how a patient will self-diagnose via WebMD, and all of a sudden they have a million different disorders that are all very dangerous and scary, when in fact that's not the most likely outcome," says Smolenski. AI tools could help you avoid your next 3 am spiral after noticing a weird rash by taking more information (beyond one symptom) into consideration, such as your medical history or specifics about your symptoms, and delivering more relevant guidance.
Helping you prepare for appointments. "Clinical encounters can be scary or unsettling for people because there's an expertise imbalance," says Smolenski. Doctors have a highly specialized set of knowledge about the human body and often use technical language, which can make you feel like your opinions or questions are silly. Learning more about the conditions or symptoms you're experiencing via AI could help even the playing field and empower you to make your appointments more of a dialogue.
"Hearing" you. This is particularly relevant for women and minority groups, who are more likely to have their symptoms overlooked. So if you're able to communicate your health concerns to an AI system that may not discount you in the way that a physician might, that could be a big benefit, and maybe even help you advocate for yourself IRL next time.
Easing conversations. In an ideal world, you'd feel completely comfortable sharing every intimate detail with your doctor so you can make informed decisions about your health together. The reality? Many people lie or withhold info from healthcare providers due to embarrassment or fear of being judged. But holding back can have detrimental effects: Research suggests that people could be less likely to get help for stigmatized health concerns, such as mental health issues, STIs, addiction, and obesity. Life-saving tests like colonoscopies are underutilized for similar reasons, says Smolenski. The anonymous nature of AI could remove some of these emotional barriers and allow people to — at the very least — get more information.
So, can ChatGPT be your new doctor?
The experts we talked to say the AI systems that are currently available to consumers shouldn't be trusted to give advice on something as precious as your health. "I wouldn't recommend using these tools now (or in the future) for health concerns," says Bender. ChatGPT states its shortcomings when asked whether it provides accurate medical info: "While I strive to offer reliable and up-to-date information, I am not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. If you have specific medical concerns or questions, it is essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional."
While AI-powered tools give instant gratification compared to an often tedious healthcare system, they still have a long way to go before you can trust them with your health. And if you do decide to use AI in this way, think of it as a way to guide your next steps rather than a one-stop-shop solution. Your doctor is still the trusted resource for getting and keeping your health on track.
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