Amazon exec says A.I. in health care is finally moving beyond hype

  • Amazon's senior health leader, Taha Kass-Hout, talks up the company's advances in artificial intelligence.
  • Kass-Hout points to Amazon's Comprehend Medical as an example of AI moving beyond hype to reality.
Attendees at Amazon.com Inc annual cloud computing conference walk past the Amazon Web Services logo in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., November 30, 2017.
REUTERS/Salvador Rodriguez
Attendees at Amazon.com Inc annual cloud computing conference walk past the Amazon Web Services logo in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., November 30, 2017.

Amazon doesn't talk much about its plans in health care. But in a rare interview during a health conference, one of its senior leaders hinted at some areas of focus for the e-commerce giant.

Taha Kass-Hout, the former U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief health informatics officer who joined Amazon in March, didn't reveal any trade secrets in the interview with the health website Stat, but indicated that Amazon sees big potential in developing AI tools for health.

"AI is medicine is not a new concept," Kass-Hout said, explaining that the earliest uses of the technology in health dates to the 1960s when it was first used to navigate patients to the right place. He noted that the past year has seen a massive uptick in research papers that use "prediction and natural language understanding" in a variety of new ways.

Despite that, he also cautioned that AI tools have been overhyped.

"I'm really happy to see that in 2018, a lot of that dust settled and we started to see real, concrete examples of its use," he said.

One of these, which Kass-Hout also touched on in the interview, is Comprehend Medical, a machine learning service for health information that Amazon launched in late 2018. One early partner, Change Healthcare, which processes health claims for pharmacies, uses Comprehend Medical to predict whether an insurance claim will likely be denied.

He went on to explain that AI tools must do a better job of curating medical information, suggesting two or three options that are right for each patient instead of a list of thousands. Ultimately, he stressed, none of these tools will replace the doctor but instead will help them do their jobs better.

Finally, Kass-Hout noted that societal inequities could be exacerbated by these tools if they're only used be the "worried well," and not the truly sick and needy. "How do we use it ethically and to bridge the gap?" he asked.

"You do 10,000 of these screens before you find something and say, 'Oh, maybe I need to pay attention to this,'" he said. "But how well can many experts and clinicians do this, especially in some areas where you have 1 doctor per 10,000 or 100,000 patients?"

Amazon hasn't said much about its goals in the health care industry. But the company is dabbling in a variety of areas through different project teams, including in the drug supply chain, where it acquired internet pharmacy PillPack last year, and through its cloud service, AWS, where it's looking to sell into large health systems.

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