The doctor’s digital black bag, now featuring generative AI

Dec. 18, 2023 / By Travis Bias, DO, MPH, FAAFP

Inside Angle Podcast: 3M Health Information Systems
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Dr. David Butler received his first electronic in-basket message from a patient in 2005. It came as a surprise at the time. This was well before the beginning of what physician informaticists affectionately call Meaningful Use. 

In these early years of his career, he found himself frustrated that he could not practice the way he wanted to practice, largely because the computer kept getting in the way of his connections to his patients.

Since then, he has been fending off the development of “tech antibodies” that may arise out of physicians’ desensitization to frustrations with work environments increasingly dominated by technology, digging in as a leader determined to help solve informatics challenges for physicians. “A human made this and a human can fix this.”

Featured prominently in Dr. Butler’s initial idealized vision of becoming a physician was the classic black doctor’s bag, donning a white coat, sitting behind a mahogany desk, maybe visiting a patient in their home. His career path has evolved, though, now consulting as an expert in the stocking and utilization of the digital black bag.

Unwilling to simply accept the digital black bag given to him, he has sought to have more ownership over the technological tools inside.

Your typical black bag might include standard tools such as a stethoscope or otoscope, while the expanded digital black bag might involve an electronic health record (EHR) system. Now, Dr. Butler is exploring the coolest new tool in the bag: generative artificial intelligence (AI). It is more of a multi-functional tool than a traditional tools, he says. And this is a tool that many clinicians were not trained on, despite having a potentially larger impact than many other tools at a physician’s disposal.

It is a bit of an understatement to say Dr. Butler is optimistic about generative AI’s prospects in health care. If applied appropriately, this capability has the potential to support education, patient-facing communications and more. Success will require targeting practical use cases, perhaps following NYU’s model of testing out generative AI tools and proactively harnessing people, processes, policies and technology in a democratized yet coordinated fashion. Above all else, generative AI will expand access to information – for both clinicians and patients – so that folks might live a better life.

Generative AI is still new enough that our health system leaders have a chance to ensure that this tool does not become the next technology that hastens further erosion of relationships between patients and physicians. If Dr. Butler has his way, the next decade of integrating tech tools with clinical work will simultaneously support high quality care and work-life balance for physicians, while expanding access to care for diverse populations.

But don’t take my word for it; there is no substitute for hearing it from Dr. Butler himself!

Dr. Travis Bias is a family medicine physician and chief medical officer of clinician solutions at 3M Health Information Systems.