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VA Plans to Use AI to Track Deteriorating Health in Veterans


The agency continued its march towards tech-savviness by announcing a partnership with AI firm DeepMind.

Under Secretary David Shulkin, MD, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) has made a conscious effort to become more tech-savvy. This week, it took another step in that direction by announcing a partnership with Google-owned machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) firm DeepMind.

The collaboration is aimed at detecting health deterioration among VA patients. The London-based tech firm will have access to 700,000 de-personalized historical health records, which it will use to develop algorithms to identify risk factors for declining health. An official release from the agency said early work would focus on common and preventable signs, like acute kidney injury, that can lead to death if undetected.

“Medicine is more than treating patients’ problems,” Shulkin said in the statement. “Clinicians need to be able to identify risks to help prevent disease.”

Patient deterioration is to blame for 11% of in-hospital deaths worldwide, according to the agency. Veterans face a host of unique health challenges that could contribute to deterioration, like elevated incidence of stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use, hazardous exposure, and chronic pain.

DeepMind has experience with both state-sponsored health research projects and the potential pitfalls that come with them. Since 2015 it has paired with the National Health Service in the UK for various projects. While working to develop a kidney disease-identification tool called Streams, it ran into controversy when it was found to have illegally received identifiable information on 1.6 million patients.

The potential violation, discovered last summer, caused UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham to write that the “price of innovation didn’t need to be the erosion of legally ensured fundamental privacy rights.”

The VA’s statement did not provide timelines or terms for the partnership. The announcement comes as it faces growing scrutiny on another tech project: its electronic health records (EHR) transition. Nearly 8 months after announcing it would sign a contract to use Cerner’s technology, no deal has materialized. Officials from the agency have stated that a deal would be signed before the end of this month.

Related Coverage:

Is AI as Smart as It Thinks It Is?

GAO Details Failed VA EHR Initiatives as Agency Requests New Interoperability Rule

Checking the Pulse of Blockchain in Healthcare

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