Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

Medical professionals consider AI to address chronic health conditions in the midst of COVID-19

November 17, 2021, 12:10 AM UTC
Senior woman checking own blood pressure under guidance of doctor on video call at home
Getty Images

The pandemic has only exacerbated chronic and mental health conditions that the US was already battling—and devoting 90% of their annual health care expenses to, says the CDC. 

“In 2020, the number three cause of death was COVID, about 342,000 deaths,” said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, the American Heart Association’s chief medical officer of prevention, at this week’s Fortune Brainstorm Health discussion, Smarter Chronic Care: Lessons From the Pandemic, presented in partnership with IBM Watson Health. Although COVID-19 was and remains a blow to our healthcare system, Dr. Sanchez cautioned that it did not “replace” anything: “Heart disease and cancer stayed at number one and number two [as the leading causes of death.]”

The pandemic doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and just as these underlying health problems impacted the U.S. population disproportionately before the pandemic, “people who were African American, Hispanic, and other communities of color, who we know already have these disparate diseases” were hospitalized and lost their lives at higher rates, said the executive director of the American Public Health Association, Dr. Georges Benjamin.

Another major problem is that, perhaps counterintuitively, COVID-19 pushed people further away from their healthcare providers. “In cardiovascular disease,” offered Dr. Paul Friedman, professor of medicine and Mayo Clinic’s chair of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine. “Somehow there was a 30 to 40% drop in March of last year in people presenting with STEMI, in other words, a heart attack. And it’s not like people aren’t having heart attacks.” Patients would rather wait out an unknown pain than risk COVID-19 exposure at the emergency room. According to Dr. Gretchen Jackson, vice president and chief science officer of IBM Watson Health, “about 25% of children missed some sort of preventative care or routine care appointment” during the pandemic. Yet, the more prevalent an underlying condition, the more at risk a patient is for other problems like COVID-19.

Dr. Benjamin reminded the panel that the pandemic also “wore out the medical community.” This past September alone, 589,000 people left the healthcare profession, in line with the wave of workers quitting their jobs in what’s been coined the ever-growing Great Resignation

A solution? We already have the technology to combat both burnout and patient anxiety, Dr. Benjamin said. Telemedicine has been around for at least 50 years, and both remote psychiatry and surgery are possible. Dr. Friedman added that roughly 20% of cardiovascular appointments today are virtual. This is a chance for a healthcare accessibility revolution. While not everyone owns a smartphone, 80% of the population, Dr. Benjamin noted, do have a phone. He sees a future where a “routine blood pressure check” is a remote procedure, saving all parties valuable time. Dr. Friedman spoke of randomized trial data that supports the effectiveness of an AI-read ECG, testing for weak hearts.

Yet, imperative in building a stronger healthcare system is both humility and patience, Dr. Jackson said, as scientists still study “long COVID” or post-COVID health issues. Efficient technology is the ultimate resource, but what matters most is how it’s used. We’re enduring a health crisis that is as much mental as it is viral: long periods of social distancing and lack of contact, Dr. Friedman noted, is linked to depression.

The pandemic drew attention to the need for both efficiency and wider access, but at the root is human connectivity.  So, Dr. Jackson recommends making data on health disparities widely accessible and prioritizing “healthy dialogue” both between patients and physicians and between health care workers themselves. During the pandemic, IBM Watson Health helped organizations build “conversational technology” AI platforms that would listen to and answer health related questions.

Before Dr. Jackson operates, she said, what children’s parents need from her most is a face-to-face meeting to quell their nerves and a hug afterward.

Dr. Friedman added: “The AI doesn’t replace physicians. It’s more like [a] flashlight at night, when you want to go for a walk. It lets you see farther, but you’re still using your eyes.”

More health care and Big Pharma coverage from Fortune:

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.