AI: Healthcare's Next Frontier

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Between emerging technologies such as AI, and a rapidly approaching breaking point in pharmacy safety, our healthcare system is at a crossroads.  

In one camp, you’ve got experts and pundits saying that artificial intelligence (AI) is the future of healthcare and that it’s going to take the jobs of experienced clinicians like pharmacists.  

On the other hand, we have cohorts of individuals projecting the exact opposite—that technology will never be able to replace the personalized care and relationships that pharmacists can provide to their patients.  

I’m here to take a provocative stance. Can’t both be right? 

As a pharmacist myself, and a 20+ year healthcare technology veteran, I’d like to posit that the future of pharmacy lies somewhere in the grey area between these two extremes. I have no doubt that AI will be continuously woven into the fabric of how we practice pharmacy – however I take issue with the thought that the technology will inherently displace pharmacists entirely.  

Safer pharmacies enable safer patient-centric care 

Nowhere is this concept more prevalent than in mainstream media. We are inundated with news articles shining light on overworked and underappreciated pharmacists, most of whom feel trapped in a career that fails to show them balance, stability, and any semblance of loyalty. The reality is that our profession has been at its breaking point for many years now. It’s one of the main tenants behind co-founding Aspen RxHealth as a way to offer a flexible and novel career alternative to pharmacists.  

It pains me as a pharmacist to say it, but pharmacies have largely become unsafe environments for the very pharmacists who manage them. For many, it feels harder than ever to be a pharmacist, and clinicians are leaving this once noble profession in droves in search of better solutions for themselves and their families.  

What does safety have to do with it? 

The rise of grueling demands and long hours has led to a consistent outcome—errors. When the layperson makes a mistake at work, the consequences are rarely life or death. When a pharmacist makes a mistake at work, patients’ lives are on the line. Fortunately, we’re not out of luck. Addressing patient safety begins with creating safer environments for our pharmacists. Ones where they aren’t forced to work 80+ hours per week or remain behind the counter while worrying that they may be actively experiencing a heart attack 

To create a safer environment for our pharmacists, I believe we must use one of the most innovative emerging technologies: artificial intelligence.  

Pharmacists and AI: a collaboration to change the world 

Pharmacists and artificial intelligence can work together to change healthcare for the better.

Pharmacists aren’t the only profession staring down the fear-mongering headlines. AI stands to replace many careers but in my opinion, pharmacists are not one of them.  

I see a bright future in which AI becomes an integral part of the way we practice pharmacy. So much so, that it would be malpractice for a pharmacist not to use it. On the other side of the argument, it would be malpractice to use it in a pharmacy without the watchful supervision of a pharmacist.  

If you’re like me and learn best through real-world examples, let’s look (up) at a common daily sight —airplanes. For many years now, the aircraft that we willingly board and travel upon are flown by a pilot, along with autopilot technology. Technology can fly the plane, yet we still have pilots and co-pilots in the cockpit for every single flight—why?  

The aviation sector has evolved to recognize that technology won’t replace the trained professional, the technology is simply a tool for the professionals to use.  

A pharmacy of the future 

Imagine a calm, efficiently run pharmacy. When a new prescription is called in for a patient, the AI system quickly completes an error-free analysis of the patient’s medications to verify that the new medication won’t cause harmful side effects. The pharmacist reviews and signs off on the analysis, fills the prescription with the help of an automated filling system, and the patient receives a frictionless pharmacy experience, leaving with the medication they need.  

In this same pharmacy, technology may miss critical data relating to the patient’s medications. Perhaps a patient is taking an herbal supplement or an over-the-counter medication that the AI system is not privy to. This is where the harmony occurs. Upon completing a CMR with the patient, their pharmacist can verify all medications including prescriptions, OTC drugs, and supplements, to get a true comprehensive drug safety analysis that the AI would never have been able to calculate.  

In this way, pharmacists and technology work in lockstep to create better outcomes for the patients who trust them and the pharmacists who are crying out for a better way.  

The new frontier for pharmacy 

A future like the one I described won’t arrive overnight. I believe it will come with two main requirements: regulatory guiderails and realistic expectations. 

Regulation to keep AI on the right track 

Someday when we collectively look back, we’ll realize that we were once in the Wild West of Tech. New technologies are emerging at a rate so rapid, most – including our regulatory bodies - cannot keep up. In order to ensure a safe and sustainable future for AI in healthcare, we need guardrails put in place to guide us in what AI should be, what it should do, and perhaps most importantly, what it shouldn’t do. 

With this framework, fellow entrepreneurs and those at the helm of tech companies can do what they do best—innovate.  

Keep ourselves grounded 

Concurrently, we must maintain realistic expectations. When AI reveals its flaws, we must continue to learn, grow, and embrace experimentation.  

What’s important to keep in mind is this: when a deadly error is made in a pharmacy, we rightfully blame the system. The long hours and exhaustion are the cause of that error, not the pharmacist. Likewise, when AI makes a mistake or creates an undesirable outcome, we must resist our inclination to abandon it entirely. The beauty of such computerized systems and machine learning is that they’re not intended to make the same mistake twice. With careful calibration and pharmacist supervision, I believe that AI could be the next step in the evolution of our nation’s healthcare infrastructure. 

Of all my self-proclaimed belief systems, being a futurist pharmacist is one that has endured throughout my entire career. I maintain a curiosity and fascination with delivering patient care and always seek to learn, evolve, and expand my thinking. Connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know if you agree with – or disagree with - my predictions. I look forward to connecting with you. 

About the author: 

David Medvedeff is the co-founder, President, and General Manager of Aspen RxHealth. A pharmacist by training, David has dedicated his career to innovating the practice of pharmacy by leveraging technology. David has founded, grown, and led multiple successful healthcare technology startups and earned numerous industry accolades for his successes.