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Healthcare innovation leader talks future of health IT

The health IT expert predicts that machine learning and ambient listening will be among the important emerging technologies affecting healthcare in 2020.

"Sometimes I think of myself as Forrest Gump of Health IT," said John Halamka, M.D., M.S. and health IT expert, to a crowd of medical residents, students and health entrepreneurs at an event at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center last week as he discussed the future of health IT.

Halamka has worn different hats throughout his career, holding positions including: a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, chairman of the New England Healthcare Exchange Network, co-chair of the national HIT Standards Committee, co-chair of the Massachusetts HIT Advisory Committee and a practicing emergency physician.

John HalamkaJohn Halamka

But Halamka said, just like Forrest Gump, he happened to show up at every seminal event in digital technology history by "pure accident," from meeting Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, to being appointed at a very young age to a CIO position, to planning healthcare IT strategy under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Now, Halamka is leading healthcare innovation as the executive director of the Health Technology Exploration Center at Beth Israel Lahey Health. In this new role, he travels to many countries, helping academia and the health industry get through what he called "digital health transformation puzzles that all of us are facing."

Ambient listening, machine learning to play key roles

During his talk last week at Beth Israel, Halamka discussed how healthcare organizations will still interact with computing devices but are moving away from keyboards and toward audio. Emerging technologies like ambient listening and machine learning will be key players in healthcare IT innovation.

Digital assistants using voice interactivity are helpful for many groups of patients. A digital assistant can do basic tasks such as telling people when to take their next pill or provide appropriate contact information for health care practitioners based on the symptoms people say to it.

No human can sit in a dark room and look at 250 images in five minutes … the machine learning can say 'Look at these 20, they look funny.'
John HalamkaExecutive director, Health Technology Exploration Center, Beth Israel Lahey Health

Ambient listening technology, however, isn't aimed at just patients; it has use cases for physicians, too. "Doctors, as we know, don't like their electronic health records so much," Halamka said, adding that he's seen many startups now applying the ambient listening approach to products that would have the ability to record a patient and doctor conversation, automatically write the chart and allow doctors to edit it afterwards. "Nuance has some of this in prototype but there's … Suki AI and a bunch of companies working on this."

Another technology Halamka emphasized was machine learning.

He was careful to point out that machine learning technology in healthcare does not mean machines will replace human doctors. Instead, the machines augment how clinicians work and enable them to return their workload to "human scale."

As an example, Halamka explained that the number of CT scan slices per patient a radiologist has to look at has gone up exponentially. In this case, machine learning can prove to be helpful. "No human can sit in a dark room and look at 250 images in five minutes … the machine learning can say 'Look at these 20, they look funny.'"

What will the future of health IT technology look like?

A mix of medical students, residents and entrepreneurs in the health IT field were in attendance at Halamka's future of health IT talk. Among the audience members was Tim Sotman, a medical resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who said he has always been interested in health IT innovation and getting involved in projects that can improve the way people work and operate in the healthcare field.

"I can't wait, actually, to see what the next few years have in store in terms of what sort of [health IT] technologies are going to come out. And it's been really impressive to me how fast AI has moved, especially in radiology," Sotman said.

During his time at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Sotman said he witnessed the fast pace of innovation in healthcare IT at the hospital. "When I was interviewing to go to radiology, there was a project here on classifying pneumonias on X-rays; there's another project there on bone ages of children." Now, there's a website dedicated to housing thousands of AI projects and ideas.

Halamka said, "People sometimes ask me 'what will technology look like five years from now?' We could have Facebook implants five years from now, who knows. So you just take each opportunity that comes your way, and follow it and you'll be surprised at how things work."

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