Confidence, investment in AI remains high, Optum says

By | October 10, 2019

Dive Brief:

  • Half of healthcare organizations leveraging artificial intelligence expect a positive return on investment in less than three years, according to a new survey from UnitedHealth Group’s health services arm Optum. Nine in 10 healthcare executives are confident they’ll see an ROI sooner than previously expected.
  • Senior health leaders also plan to invest more in AI-related projects this year, reporting they expect to spend almost $ 40 million over the next five years — $ 7.3 million more than 2018’s estimate.
  • The number of respondents saying their organizations have an AI strategy in place rose 88% year over year. Of executives surveyed, 62% report they have such a plan. Last year that number was at only 33%.

Dive Insight:

AI adoption in healthcare has surged over the past decade as companies leverage the tech to cut waste, streamline billing, improve patient matching and population health management and more. Tech giants like Amazon, Google, Intel and Microsoft are leveraging their hefty AI capabilities as they move into healthcare, and they’ve found a number of willing partners.

Payers and providers are more optimistic than life sciences companies on tangible cost savings resulting from AI investments. A majority of both (52% and 55%, respectively) expect to see a positive return in three years or less, while 38% of life sciences executives anticipate a positive return will take five years or longer.

Of the executives surveyed, 22% report being at the late stages of AI strategy implementation.

Healthcare leaders are more confident in AI for administrative over clinical applications, Optum’s insight arm OptumIQ found. Half of all organizations want to invest in automating business processes, like administrative tasks or customer service, while only about a third plan to invest in personalizing clinical care recommendations, such as drug therapies, or accelerating research for new therapeutic or clinical discoveries.

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The findings underscore industry uncertainty on using AI as a diagnostic tool. Determining what illness, if any, a patient has is dogged with variability and can hinge on a clinician’s experience and judgment. Outside image-intensive areas like radiology and dermatology, where machine learning algorithms can be trained on reams of data, it’s not clear whether AI will amount to more than a diagnostic assistant.

Earlier this month, a coalition of prominent radiology groups called for stringent guidelines on the ethical use of AI in healthcare, saying that “AI developers ultimately need to be held to the same ‘do no harm’ standard as physicians.”

However, a study published in the Lancet Digital Health journal in September found evidence AI can detect diseases from medical imaging with the same accuracy as healthcare professionals. The FDA has also approved some 30-odd AI software tools for diagnostic use and investors are bullish in the field, suggesting the market could become more crowded in coming months.

Healthcare executives saw AI’s potential most strongly in automating prior authorization, providing patients with relevant health information using personalized communications, managing EHRs, detecting fraud or waste in reimbursement and selecting appropriate care settings, in that order.

Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Optum has extensive reach — the life sciences branch of healthcare giant UnitedHealth Group has worked with 300 health plans, 80% of all U.S. hospitals, 67,000 community pharmacies and 38 states.

The survey included 500 senior healthcare executives across providers, payers, life sciences organizations and other healthcare employers.

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