I was visiting with a few of my nutrition friends the other day and the subject of technology in the field came up. Since I work for an AI-based company, I used this as an opportunity to ask questions and understand the concerns of fellow dietitians, most of whom have only worked in a hospital or clinic. Some had concerns regarding job security, while others were worried about losing the empathy that a human can provide. While they all had concerns, the dietitians were well aware that technology was here to stay. How do dietitians and other healthcare practitioners learn to accept AI and maybe even embrace it?
Let’s address these concerns. Job security, understandably, is a huge factor for many healthcare workers. Despite this concern, research has shown that adding artificial intelligence into most healthcare fields won’t wipe out the workforce; in fact, it may do the opposite [i]. With technology merging with the medical world, healthcare workers may find themselves with different job opportunities than were available fifteen years ago. Looking back, I could not have predicted where I am today, working for an AI-based platform as an oncology dietitian. Coupling the advancement of AI with a younger, more tech-savvy workforce, healthcare jobs will continue to evolve, and patient care may look very different in the near future.
When it comes to empathy, how is a computer supposed to replicate a human’s empathy and compassion? Short answer, it’s not. The idea of technology and artificial intelligence in medicine is not meant to be a stand-alone entity. As was stated in a recent article in the Harvard Gazette, AI is meant to complement and support the healthcare provider instead of replacing them [ii]. The dietitian will ultimately use clinical judgement to best care for a patient and with that comes the empathy and compassion that all good healthcare providers have. On our AI platform, the RDs who work with Ina® are able to tailor the messaging and connect with the user as they would in a traditional clinic setting.
Now that the concerns are out of the way, how can artificial intelligence help healthcare workers, and in particular dietitians? As a dietitian who worked in a traditional sense for fifteen years and who now works in technology, two major benefits come to mind: RD efficiency and accessibility for patients.
When I worked in the hospital setting, efficiency was the goal, but it felt impossible to achieve. With a full patient schedule, plus charting, paperwork, and team meetings, an eight hour day turned into much more than that. What if artificial intelligence could help? As an example, AI could “triage” for the dietitian, screening patients for nutrition issues and focusing on less complicated cases, as well as tackling administrative tasks. Not only might this improve the efficiency of the RD, but it could open up time for the RD to focus on high-risk patients and spend more time in nutrition consultations with patients who need the help.
As for accessibility for patients, let’s use oncology as an example. With the shortage of dietitians in the healthcare space, and particularly oncology, access to a dietitian is a major issue for cancer patients. It has been shown that there are over 2,600 patients per one dietitian in cancer centers and most of the RDs work for major hospitals or healthcare systems [iii]. What about those patients who seek treatment at a rural cancer center? Even in major hospitals who employ dozens of dietitians, many cancer patients will never see a dietitian, unless their nutritional status is compromised. Hence the need for AI. Artificial intelligence can step in and help the patients whose access to a dietitian is limited. In the case of Ina®, patients can interact with a dietitian from their home, seven days a week, without the need for an appointment.
As with most healthcare practitioners, I became a Registered Dietitian to help people. With the assistance of artificial intelligence, more patients can be reached, and more comprehensive care can be delivered—all without sacrificing clinical judgement and compassion. Thinking of AI and Registered Dietitians as a team instead of competition can create an open-minded approach to technology and ultimately lead to better care for more patients. As dietitians, we want what is best for the patient, and it seems that partnering with AI may be the best way to achieve optimal care.
[i] Davenport T, Kalakota R. The potential for artificial intelligence in healthcare. Future Healthc J. 2019;6(2):94-98. doi:10.7861/futurehosp.6-2-94
[ii] Powell A. Risks and benefits of an AI revolution in medicine. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/11/risks-and-benefits-of-an-ai-revolution-in-medicine/. Published December 4, 2020. Accessed February 4, 2021.
[iii] Trujillo EB, Dixon SW, Claghorn K, Levin RM, Mills JB, Spees CK. Closing the Gap in Nutrition Care at Outpatient Cancer Centers: Ongoing Initiatives of the Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018 Apr;118(4):749-760.