In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, health informatics expert Gabriela Wilson explains how artificial intelligence and machine learning are advancing health care during the pandemic. 

Wilson is a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, which will host the second annual Texas Health Informatics Alliance Conference in September. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.

Alexis Allison: Gabriela, hello. First, your bio on the University of Texas at Arlington’s website says that you are a firm believer in ‘the power of many.’ And I’m wondering what that means.

Gabriela Wilson: We are academics, and we always like to be in our own world. But I’m coming from industry, from pharmaceuticals. I’m also an immigrant, and I know that you cannot make progress if you don’t have others helping you or you helping others. So to me, the power of many is getting connected to everybody who needs your help, or you can help, and most importantly, help(ing) the community where you live and work. That’s what I believe ‘many’ is — it has no borders.

Allison: I know that you’re an expert in health informatics. If you were to explain health informatics to a child, for example, how would you put it?

Wilson: I can use an example of, if you don’t feel well and you cannot go to school or cannot play outside, what makes you sick? And if you have the same symptoms (months later), how are those related? I will say if you add all of this information together, this is health informatics. This is gaining knowledge about your own health by looking at the past, understanding the present, and being better prepared, health-wise, for the future. I hope sixth-graders will understand what I’m talking about. 

Allison: You mentioned looking toward health (in) the future. And that brings me to this conference that’s about to be held at UTA’s campus: It’s the Texas Health Informatics Alliance conference on Sept. 9. First, can you just tell us, what is it? 

Wilson: Our first event was last year, Sept. 9, and it was virtual. The focus of the conference was on the pandemic, and how we use technology to respond better to the crisis. This year, we are focusing on artificial intelligence and machine learning to advance health. And again, if you ask me, ‘How would you explain that to a sixth- grader?’ I would say, ‘Do you have an Alexa at home? Or are you using Netflix or YouTube videos? And do you get suggestions based on the content that you like?’ Well, all of this is possible because of artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Artificial intelligence: The ability of a machine to mimic intelligent human behavior.

Machine learning: A type of artificial intelligence in which a machine learns to program itself through experience. 

Source: MIT Sloan School of Management 

So we apply these same technologies to health care. And it became extremely important during the pandemic, because we (experienced) at the beginning, when the vaccine was not available, a large influx of patients coming to the hospitals.

We put in place telehealth services, chatbots, where you can go and talk to a machine and say, ‘These are my symptoms,’ and then based on machine learning, artificial intelligence, you knew exactly, ‘Do I have to send this patient to the emergency room?’ Or it can be a telehealth consult. So these are clear examples of how this technology really gained so much more popularity among people and health care workers. 

Allison: Can you give an example in public health as well?

Wilson: We all know that we use electronic medical records. You connect as a patient through (electronic medical records), but the interface looks different. (Providers) want to make sure that the person using it understands how to have an appointment, cancel, reschedule and then see the notes from (that) appointment, right? 

So throughout these electronic medical records, there is also a little virtual guide that asks, ‘Why are you calling today?’ When you’re going on the chat, ‘What is the problem? Do you experience fever?’ So during the pandemic, we saw that happening, right? ‘Do you experience fever? Do you have the symptoms?’ So if your answers were ‘yes’ to that machine, that machine automatically knew that you needed to be seen and tested for COVID-19. 

Well, this is being applied to other things. So the pandemic was just that urgency to make this algorithm better in predicting, using the symptoms and then being able to guide the user to where they should go next.

Interested in attending the conference?

Register here (each ticket costs $100). 

Allison: I know that the title for the theme of this conference is, ‘All in: Artificial intelligence and machine learning to accelerate health.’ I’m wondering, how do you envision artificial intelligence and machine learning accelerating health in the next few years? What could that look like?

Wilson: Well, I hope it can look the way I see it. When I teach health informatics, an introductory course to my undergraduate students, I end my lectures all the time with a video that was the Microsoft ‘vision of health care’ that was put together almost 20 years ago, believe it or not, and that vision is still relevant. That video is still relevant, because it shows that you can get all the treatment and all the help you need from your home. You don’t have to go to a hospital. 

People think technology loses humanity, but if you do it the right way, it actually connects us better. And that’s what we’ve noticed during the pandemic. The way I see it is, many health care workers are burdened by documentation. You lose contact with your patient. But if you have a machine capturing all the information that’s being exchanged between patient, nurse, social worker, doctor, community health worker, whoever is in that room, then all of that medical information is now being captured by a machine. What we have to do as humans is just verify the accuracy (of the medical information).

It’s not going to be just a 10-minute visit with a doctor. Like everybody says, ‘It’s 10 minutes — that’s all they gave me.’ You will have time to ask questions. This technology is helping health care teams connect emotionally with a patient — to make you feel human, and not, ‘I need to take care of writing this in the electronic health record. I don’t have time for you.’

Allison: And to make sure that I understand — it’s a virtual room?

Wilson: I mean, it can be in person, depending on if there is a need to bring that patient in the hospital or clinical setting. But it can be virtual, like we conducted all of our health care appointments during the pandemic, bringing multiple people at the same time on screen. 

And, we might be able to capture in the future — because of this artificial intelligence, machine learning — some subtleties about the mental health of an individual because of the way they write. So, I think the future looks extremely bright. 

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....