This Month’s Featured Article


By Published On: January 2nd, 2024

Welcome to 2024 – where the possibilities of our high-tech future have melded with the realities of patients’ medical present. In fact, according to, “global artificial intelligence in the healthcare market was valued at $16.3 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 40.2% to reach $173.55 billion by 2029.” The worldwide tech partner and software development company came to the obvious conclusion from the above statistic that “the healthcare AI market is experiencing a remarkable and significant surge in its growth and acceptance.”

AI is often the subject of science fiction movies, fantastical novels, and exhilarating but sometimes alarming news reports, but the medical field has long integrated AI healthcare through complementary technologies beyond the impressive robotics seen in operating rooms, according to vice president, chief medical information officer for Nuvance Health, Dr. Albert Villarin. Sharon Hospital in Sharon, CT, is part of the Nuvance Health network of hospitals and serves the Northwest Corner of Connecticut, the Harlem Valley of New York, and the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. 

Healthcare, locally

“When you define AI, it’s been around for quite a while; we’ve used it in healthcare known as robotic process automation. This is software that assists patients and physicians with clinically relevant alerts. If I’m writing an order, I’ll get an alert if a patient has an allergy. This is an example of AI in its early stages,” said Dr. Villarin, who focuses, in large part, on advancing informatics and emergency room revisions as part of his job at Nuvance. He also supports network initiatives to identify equity gaps and health disparities to improve patient outcomes and advance care equality. Dr. Villarin explained that AI is “taking a set of rules and creating a path for those rules to be used in the electronic medical record.”

He added that artificial intelligence has helped doctors and other clinicians keep better records for more than 20 years, improving clinical decision making and supporting caregiving.

Augmented intelligence

“It’s really a practice that all electronic medical records have for patient safety and better care,” he said. “AI is now an extension of our ability to gain further knowledge and drive better care. I call it ‘augmented intelligence,’ as we are not replacing doctors or our training. AI doesn’t replace my ability to take care of my patients – it enhances it. If a patient has heart failure, AI-supportive tests can be used to support and enhance the accuracy of a diagnosis.”

What many people may not realize is that artificial intelligence is already deeply integrated throughout society and used in just about everything we do in our daily lives. Whether it’s how we navigate to our next destination in our cars, how we shop online, how we wait in a queue on the telephone, how we search for the cheapest flights, or how we entertain ourselves with games and novelties such as TikTok and Instagram, the modern man, woman, and child all lean heavily on AI.

“Patients don’t know that this is already going on. It’s happening in banking, in the automotive industry, at Amazon – it’s all AI driven,” said Dr. Villarin. “AI is also enhancing the experience you have inside and outside the hospital space. It is enhancing our medical intelligence and advancing the hospital experience – for our patients and for our hospital staff.”

The focus

While Nuvance Health has “just started on that path,” it’s chosen a few key areas to focus on while getting started, according to Dr. Villarin. Those include overall quality major care, patient experience within emergency departments, and finding early and effective treatments for cancer care. That trio of goals includes making use of AI to let computers do the work of documenting patient notes and records so clinicians can focus on bedside care rather than typing into a computer while bedside. That’s something that several vendors are currently working on, which Dr. Villarin expects to be commonplace in the next year or so.

“It creates a synergy between caregiver and patient. Patients will benefit from knowing the computer is documenting accurately and bringing joy of healthcare back to the bedside,” said Dr. Villarin. “The patient gets one-on-one attention from clinicians, who are no longer distracted. The clinician can focus on the patient, knowing they can practice medicine rather than having to focus on documenting information. It enhances wellness and advances the practice of medicine. That is key. 

“Other examples of AI are enhancing patient convenience through technology,” added the doctor. 

One case in point is appointment self-scheduling, where patients can simply make their appointments online rather than make those dreaded phone calls to their doctors that require waiting on hold for upwards of 30 to 45 minutes, only to be transferred and then put on hold again. “You don’t have to make a phone call: you can go online and schedule appointments. It’s a big win and patient satisfier,” he said. 

Another usage of modern tech is that patients may simply submit their required paperwork online, allowing them to skip filling out pages and pages of tedious forms at the hospital or in their doctor’s office.

“You can go online and submit it,” said Dr. Villarin, who stressed that he wants to help patients to understand the wide scope of services available on their behalf. “Once you arrive at the clinic or hospital, you don’t have to go through all your history again, because it will all be available for your clinician to review in the EMR there. It’s not really AI, but it’s how information technology is enhancing our overall care experience by using automated processes in clinical environments.”

Advancements and its impact

Modern technology has also advanced to the point where AI is helping with much-improved diagnostic results, according to Dr. Villarin. 

“We are advancing our ability to diagnose lung and pancreatic cancers in the very early stages,” he said. “AI can detect abnormalities before humans can. It’s extending the radiological reads, and we’re seeing survival rates increase because it’s catching more cancers before they become metastatic.” 

Dr. Villarin shared how AI is saving lives today that were lost in years past because the technology simply wasn’t there.

“My father passed away from pancreatic cancer. If we had access to this enhanced automation, it probably would have been caught very early,” he said, explaining he’s making that assumption based on the type of cancer it was. “By the time we found it, it had metastasized. This technology might have prevented it from spreading, and perhaps he would have been treated earlier in his disease. I think about that every day when I’m talking about this. That’s understandable. Today we have the potential ability to treat pancreatic cancer before it becomes life-threatening.”

The same scenario exists for those facing lung cancer, as an X-ray may show subtle signs of early changes that might not be seen by a radiologist but could be caught by AI, said Dr. Villarin. 

“By providing better access of early viewing, it can enhance the patient experience. We can intervene earlier, before the disease advances, so that the patient has a better chance for a long healthy life,” he explained. “We want people to know that cancer may be preventable by using technology. I have no problem talking about my dad because he would love knowing we are helping other people through his experience.”

The same benefits are being seen among women getting mammograms, an essential part of their regular wellness routines.

“The same logic can be applied to many diagnostic radiological tests,” said the doctor. “We can look at prior images from one year and see nothing. Reviewing a later image may show subtle findings earlier in cancer progression.”

Being in the loop

AI is also helping hospitals make improvements beyond diagnostics, radiology, and surgery, where robotics are often leaned on; it’s also making strides with patient experience. Dr. Villarin said an exciting new use of AI is to help transfer information to patients being treated in the ER, so they stay in the loop about their care. 

Specifically, a patient coming to the ER may opt to register their chief complaint, give their cell phone number, and join the AI program. The hospital would text the patient details about their care progress, noting test results and informative updates. AI would then text supportive information about their diagnoses from their clinician, allowing the patient to have an informed discussion with their physician.

“The relationship in healthcare is a personal one between clinician and patient. The better we can support that interaction, the better we know we can deliver improved outcomes and enhanced experiences for clinician and patient,” Dr. Villarin said. “It’s a win-win collaboration.”  

He noted we should not fear AI but respect it as an incredible tool for healthcare. As bleak as blockbuster movies like The Terminator can make the future seem, such advancements are a good thing – and they’re already here, helping modern society function.

“It isn’t scary. We have AI everywhere we go in life. It drives our cars, opens our elevator doors, and alerts our fire departments on time. What AI is doing is enhancing the human experience by doing things that humans cannot do or are not available to do or reducing the burden to get them done,” he said. “And it’s doing that 24/7 and improving the accuracy and the outcomes versus the human outcomes. AI is just software, computer software that garners more accurate information to help clinicians make better decisions for you, the patient.” •