Need for a Sense of Urgency

“You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option.“  
                                Greta Thunberg, teenage climate activist

The past few weeks we heard these impassioned words spoken with bravura from Greta Thunberg, the young teenager and climate activist who assiduously stressed the lack of a sense of urgency of potential interventions to mitigate the effects of climate change. At a recent panel discussion on AI in medicine and healthcare, I mentioned that perhaps we can all learn from her understandable exasperation when we face the myriad of challenges in artificial intelligence in medicine and healthcare.

At present, AI in sectors such as finance and commerce has lead to an evolution of machine intelligence performing the majority of tasks based on human-derived algorithms and machine learning. In medicine and healthcare, with its many existing human-related tasks that are often replete with errors and inefficiencies, we need to acquire a collective understanding of the burgeoning science of artificial intelligence and concomitantly a meaningful strategy with a timeline and agenda. While cautious optimism remains appropriate at this early stage of AI adoption, excessive pessimism or even persistent denial is perhaps no longer acceptable. 

In this current exigency of intelligently adopting elements of AI in our healthcare systems and clinical practices, we learn much about human behavior and ultimately, about ourselves. Without a clear external threat or catastrophic event (such as 9/11), humans tend not to possess a sense of urgency even in the midst of overt science and indisputable crisis. Hence the danger of AI adoption in medicine and healthcare: absence of an imminent threat and therefore lack a sense of urgency. Perhaps Greta said it best in her words of admonishment about our human tendency to procrastinate: “Change is coming, whether you like it or not.”. In addition, her more urgent plea: “Our leadership has failed us. Young people must hold older generations accountable for the mess they have created. We need to get angry, and transform that anger into action”. 

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