Training Medical Students and Residents for the AI Future

Medical schools must prepare trainees for artificial intelligence-augmented practice. 


May DSI Blog ImageIt’s a classic medical school scenario: an attending physician on rounds in the medical ward leads a group of trainees as they stand in a circle outside of a patient’s room. One of the trainees presents the case, and then the attending fires off a series of questions for anyone in the group to answer. It’s an opportunity for a trainee to shine or, if a trainee doesn’t know the answer, to suffer embarrassment in front of his or her peers, ensuring they won’t ever forget the answer again. This, or some variant of this, is how nearly every generation of medical students has learned — at least so far.

But with the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) in medicine, it’s not far-fetched to imagine what might happen if a machine powered with AI were to join the circle. Such a machine could present the patient’s case and most recent labs and propose potential plans for personalized care based on evidence in the literature, and the patient’s genetic disposition, demographic characteristics, and medical history. Using big data derived from billions of patient records, the machine could even determine precisely how probable it is that a patient will be successfully treated — a humanly impossible task for even the brightest trainees.

With machines bringing more information to patient cases than ever before, radiologists and other physicians will see their roles shift. Instead of attempting to decipher all of the facts of a case for themselves, physicians will have to know how to pose the right questions to machines, interpret their outputs, identify when machines make mistakes and course-correct accordingly, and communicate effectively with their medical colleagues and patients to formulate the best care plans.

To ensure medical students are prepared to optimize their new AI tools, medical schools must put a greater emphasis on not only data analysis and statistical training but also so-called soft skills, like ethics, leadership, and empathy. With machines at their sides, the best doctors won’t be the ones with the highest scores on standardized tests, but those with well-honed traits that machines cannot master, such as critical thinking, interpersonal and communication skills, emotional intelligence, and creativity.

We don’t know exactly how medicine will change or what medical practices will look like in the next few years. But we are undoubtedly moving into unknown territory — a place where machines routinely help physicians become better doctors. It is up to us to prepare the medical trainees of today to be adaptable so they can thrive in the coming AI-augmented practice.

By Patricia Balthazar, MD, diagnostic radiology resident at Emory University, fellowship-trained in Imaging Informatics at Harvard Medical School..