At the age of 49, our healthy, active mother fell ill and was taken to the university hospital where she had worked as a nurse’s aid for over 20 years. She ended up in the ICU where doctors came up with all sorts of guesses as to what was wrong. She had been gardening earlier that day, so they concluded that she must have contracted meningitis from a mosquito bite. In came the infectious disease group, and promptly started treating her with antibiotics.
A couple of weeks passed with antibiotics treatments. They kept changing the type used and were sharing concerns of a “superbug” that is resistant to antibiotics. Another complication arose. When strong doses of antibiotics are used for a while, yeast begins to build up in your blood stream. So, they stopped antibiotics and switched to anti-fungal medication for a week. But, without the antibiotics, her other symptoms returned. So the week after, they stopped the anti-fungal and switched back to antibiotics. This cycled for several weeks and we started questioning the doctors: “It’s obvious to us what will happen next week. Do you have any other ideas? How about filtering out the yeast from her blood while applying antibiotics?” Their response was arrogant and dismissive. “Are you an engineer?” “No, I’m a physicist.” “Right, that’s the sort of thing an engineer would think. But, the body is different, that’s why we’re doctors and not engineers.” Fear had gotten a hold of us, so we backed down. They know better and she’s one of them, so they’ll take care of her, we thought. Her coworkers would regularly stop by and check on “Momma Flora”. Doctors from other buildings came over to wish her well when they heard she was sick. They loved her. Of course they would do their best to help!
In the meantime, she was given large doses of medication to increase her blood pressure. This drew blood away from her extremities causing her toes and fingers to turn black and shrivel. Over the weeks, the necrosis spread up her legs and arms. In came the surgeon. “We have to amputate her arms and legs if you want her to survive.” My sister and I looked at each other and immediately knew what mom would want. She would rather die than lose her independence.
Families who have patients in the ICU get to know each other quite well from the moments they spend together in the waiting room after nurses occasionally shuffle you out. Although each patient was in for something completely unrelated, we noticed a pattern between their treatments. Week after week a group of doctors and their residents would walk between the rooms and prescribe updates. Strangely, we noticed that each patient’s treatment was exactly the same! New antibiotic? Add some other medication? Run that test? W. T. F. One patient was dying from breast cancer. Another had heart and liver disease. A third one was suffering from multiple organ failure. Those differences didn’t seem to matter for that week’s treatment plan.
Doctors are human. They have egos, insecurities, limited patience, limited capacity, limited energy, limited cognitive abilities, limited experience. They are not able to easily absorb information from different specialties. They don’t have the time to learn both medicine and engineering. Their decisions are biased by earlier decisions and past successes/failures, even if unrelated. Machines don’t suffer these shortcomings. AIs are capable of providing better healthcare to all people, and customizing diagnoses, treatments, etc. for each individual. They have the patience, can develop the experience, and learn multiple specialties to provide holistic decisions. These are the strengths of AIs. They can work alongside humans complementing our own strengths. There don’t need to be any cons because humans can provide what the AIs can’t at the moment. Empathy, support, a hug. A few words to provide hope to a grieving family. This is where humans shine.
At the age of 49, seven weeks after she was admitted, our mom who loved to dance around the house while blasting music, threw loud all-night long parties, played pranks on her friends and family, was fiercely defiant to anyone who tried to hurt people she loved, and gave the world’s greatest hugs passed away at the hospital where she had worked for over 20 years. They put up a plaque in her honor. Those doctors and nurses had done their best to save her. It was simply too big a problem for them to solve. Maybe it would have been different if they had some help from AIs.