Can AI solve medical mysteries? It’s worth finding out

Article by Bina Venkataraman: “Since finding a primary care doctor these days takes longer than finding a decent used car, it’s little wonder that people turn to Google to probe what ails them. Be skeptical of anyone who claims to be above it. Though I was raised by scientists and routinely read medical journals out of curiosity, in recent months I’ve gone online to investigate causes of a lingering cough, ask how to get rid of wrist pain and look for ways to treat a bad jellyfish sting. (No, you don’t ask someone to urinate on it.)

Dabbling in self-diagnosis is becoming more robust now that people can go to chatbots powered by large language models scouring mountains of medical literature to yield answers in plain language — in multiple languages. What might an elevated inflammation marker in a blood test combined with pain in your left heel mean? The AI chatbots have some ideas. And researchers are finding that, when fed the right information, they’re often not wrong. Recently, one frustrated mother, whose son had seen 17 doctors for chronic pain, put his medical information into ChatGPT, which accurately suggested tethered cord syndrome — which then led a Michigan neurosurgeon to confirm an underlying diagnosis of spina bifida that could be helped by an operation.

The promise of this trend is that patients might be able to get to the bottom of mysterious ailments and undiagnosed illnesses by generating possible causes for their doctors to consider. The peril is that people may come to rely too much on these tools, trusting them more than medical professionals, and that our AI friends will fabricate medical evidence that misleads people about, say, the safety of vaccines or the benefits of bogus treatments. A question looming over the future of medicine is how to get the best of what artificial intelligence can offer us without the worst.

It’s in the diagnosis of rare diseases — which afflict an estimated 30 million Americans and hundreds of millions of people worldwide — that AI could almost certainly make things better. “Doctors are very good at dealing with the common things,” says Isaac Kohane, chair of the department of biomedical informatics at Harvard Medical School. “But there are literally thousands of diseases that most clinicians will have never seen or even have ever heard of.”..(More)”.