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Where computers and clinics intersect

Raw Talk Podcast hosts expert panel discussions about AI’s role in healthcare

Where computers and clinics intersect

Experts in medicine, academia, and industry explored the promises and perils of the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) in health care during panel discussions with the Raw Talk Podcast on May 7. The event was organized by graduate students of U of T’s Institute of Medical Science.

The two panels, collectively named “Medicine Meets Machine: The Emerging Role of AI in Healthcare,” aimed to demystify sensationalism and clarify misconceptions about the growing field of study.

“On one hand, it seems like everyone has heard about [AI],” said Co-executive Producer Grace Jacobs. “But on the other hand, it seems like there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions that are quite common.”

How AI is used in health care

While discussing the reality of AI, several panelists emphasized that it should be viewed and treated as a tool. “It is statistics where you don’t have to predefine your model exactly,” said Dr. Jason Lerch of the University of Oxford.

Other speakers agreed that AI is an expansion of — or a replacement for — traditional statistics, image processing, and risk scores, as it can provide doctors with more robust and accurate information. However, final health care recommendations and decisions remain in the hands of doctors and patients.

“You always need a pilot,” said Dr. Marzyeh Ghassemi, a U of T assistant professor of computer science and medicine.

But what advantages can this tool provide? Ghassemi thinks it can assimilate clues from a wider range of patients’ conditions to predict treatment outcomes, replacing the experience-based intuition that doctors currently rely on.

Speaking on her time in the Intensive Care Unit as an MIT PhD student, Ghassemi said, “A patient would come in, and I swear they would look to me exactly the same as prior patients, and the… senior doctors would call it. They would say, ‘oh, this one’s not going to make it. They’re going to die.’ And I would say, ‘Okay… why?’ And they said, ‘I’m not sure. I have a sense.’”

“They used different words — gestalt, sense — but they all essentially said the same thing. ‘I just — I have a sense.'”

Doctors develop this sense by seeing many cases during their training, but they can intuit only the cases that they had personally experienced; AI algorithms can potentially understand many more cases using a wider dataset.

Accessing those cases requires access to patient data, and access to data requires conversations about consent and privacy. Ghassemi and Dr. Sunit Das, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital and Scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, said that “de-identification” — the removal of information that can be traced back to individual identities — protects privacy.

Large de-identified datasets from the United States and the United Kingdom are available for AI research, but generally, Canada lags behind these countries in making health data available for this purpose.

Dr. Alison Paprica, Vice-President of Health Strategy and Partnerships at the Vector Institute, agreed that data should be used for research, but argued that de-identification alone does not eliminate risk.

“You’re not just giving a dataset to anybody,” she said. “You’re giving a dataset to people who are extremely skilled at finding relationships and patterns and maybe piecing together information in ways that most people couldn’t. So I think there’s going to be heightened sensitivity around re-identification risk.”

Society must manage this risk and balance it against the benefits. “How do we balance that?” Paprica asked. She suggested that consulting all involved stakeholders could help strike that equilibrium.

Advice for scientists aiming to use AI in their research

So what advice did the panelists have for scientists hoping to harness the power of AI in their own research?

Ghassemi stressed the importance of knowing what you’re doing: researchers have created many tools that make AI research easy to implement, but conscientious scientists need to know the statistical and training principles behind the methods.

“If you’re not aware of how these things are trained,” she said, “it’s really easy to misuse them. Like, shockingly easy to misuse them.”

Other panelists advised users to take care when choosing data to train the algorithms. “A learning algorithm can’t overcome bad data that goes in, or can’t completely overcome it,” said Lerch.

Moderator Dr. Shreejoy Tripathy summed up a key takeaway on applying AI to health care: “Understand your data… And understand your algorithms.”

Resisting Education event reflects on diverse barriers in postsecondary institutions

Panel discusses tuition fees, Indigeneity, racism, part-time students

Resisting Education event reflects on diverse barriers in postsecondary institutions

Resisting Education: Stories of Defiance and Perseverance — an event held by the Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) — took place in UTSG’s Claude T. Bissell Building on November 30 to discuss issues faced by students in postsecondary institutions across Ontario.

The event featured a panel of guests that included Nour Alideeb, former University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union (UTMSU) President and current Chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS-O); Francis Pineda, President of the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR); Michelle Mabira, 2016–2017 President of U of T’s African Students’ Association; and Phyllis McKenna, Vice-President Equity and Campaigns of CESAR. Moderating the event was Mala Kashyap, President of APUS.

A range of issues concerning postsecondary students were raised by the panelists. Alideeb started the discussion by saying that access to postsecondary education is a “right, not privilege.” Citing the funding structure for public postsecondary institutions, particularly U of T, Alideeb said the university has become a “publicly assisted institution” instead of “publicly funded,” with some of the highest tuition costs in Canada as well as steep costs for international students.

“Is our degree that great just because we slap on ‘U of T’?” asked Alideeb. She also pointed out solutions from her work at the CFS-O, in particular her lobbying for the Ontario Student Grant, as a starting point for reducing student fees and eliminating provincial interest on student loans.

McKenna focused on Indigeneity and the issues Indigenous students face when it comes to access to education. As an Indigenous woman, McKenna criticized the low graduation rates for Indigenous students in postsecondary institutions, as well as limitations on funding for bursaries and grants due to inadequate government funding.

Mabira relayed a perception of apathy on the part of the university administration toward marginalized students. Describing the process of reporting racism to university administrators as a “lottery,” Mabira attributed deep-rooted racism within the university to a “culture of persecuting people who can challenge the way the system is built and run.” She alluded to recent reports of anti-Black racism on campus as the product of a culture of racism and ignorance.

A part-time student at Ryerson University, Pineda discussed the importance of improving access to postsecondary education, as well as keeping in mind the struggles that part-time students face at these institutions. Accessing bursaries and grants is difficult for part-time students, especially those who may incur debt over an extended period during school, said Pineda. He described in detail his own experiences as a part-time student dealing with debt and the long period of time it took for him to earn his degree.

In response to a question about solutions to the particular issues raised by the panel, McKenna conveyed a hope for diversifying approaches to education and changes to “the idea that Western worldviews are not the epitome of education.”

Alideeb, speaking from her experience with the UTMSU, said that discussion and trust are the basis for change. “If we don’t have the mechanisms to talk to each other about the things that we have problems with, we cannot find solutions to them and move forward.”

When asked about the practicality of solving issues that were raised by her fellow panelists, Alideeb responded with optimism about future conversations, specifically mentioning her past success with the ‘Fight the Fees’ campaign and the Ontario Student Grant. She emphasized the importance of the University of Toronto Students’ Union collaborating with student groups to work on tackling issues. “We need to be working with people to understand the issues — that way we can tackle them.”