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Public interest in artificial intelligence (AI) is exploding. The release of ChatGPT seems to have stimulated excitement and dread over the future of everything that could conceivably follow. Public figures, even the people at the forefront of designing AI systems, have expressed fear about what the future will hold in an age where AI systems take over tasks that have traditionally required human intelligence.

We are accustomed to thinking about technology as an enabler that frees us from the tedious, repetitive, and time-consuming tasks necessary for us to retrieve, organize, and classify information in a way that we can use to achieve a good outcome. Computers were the brawn that made us more efficient, but we were the brains that produced meaningful results. Looks like we may have to revise our thinking on this.

What Is AI and Why Is It Different?

Artificial intelligence enables a machine or system to sense, reason, act, or adapt like a human. Machine learning, a subset of AI, is a set of algorithms that enables a machine to extract knowledge from data and learn from it autonomously. This represents a leap forward in how we traditionally imagine computers.

Our first exposure to an AI product, such as ChatGPT, will tempt us to use the tool as a search engine. This is a mistake. To realize the power of AI, you need to engage in a conversation. For example, the input you provide to the machine is called a prompt. The best prompts are long, explaining to the machine its role (“You are an expert in pharmacology, and you encounter this scenario…”). You go on to explain the situation and ask for a specific response (“What are the most likely outcomes, expressed in bullets.”). You await the response and then provide feedback and ask for clarification. The process iterates until you get whatever useful information you’re looking for. Feedback from you is important to help the system gain insight and adjust its response.

Strengths and Limitations of AI

To be useful, an AI model needs to be trained on massive amounts of data, processed on very expensive equipment. The ChatGPT 4 model was released in March 2023 and includes data through most of 2021. Although most industry watchers predict that models will eventually be continuously updated, we need to keep this major limitation in mind.

The obvious strength of AI is that it’s fueled by more data than we could access through normal means. It can also use this data to respond to our prompts and can learn from our feedback. AI’s ability to formulate responses in plain language and, if prompted, provide references to data sources gives us more confidence that the system isn’t simply making it up.

Do Pharmacists Need to Worry?

Each new wave of progress has been accompanied by anxiety. How will this affect our lives, our work, our security? There was a time companies employed thousands of administrative assistants whose job it was to take dictation and type correspondence. Microsoft® Office eliminated most of those jobs, but more jobs were created to help capitalize on the new efficiencies ushered in by the technology. This is different, in that many of the concerns over AI center on whether we will be able to trust this tool to tell us the truth. In many ways, social media has prepared us for this, but if we entrust too much control to a machine without a conscience, the results could be troubling.

Our industry relies on cognitive skills aimed at solving problems. We rely on more than simple facts to solve problems. We use our experience; the subtle clues given by patients in the way they answer questions, facial expressions, and tone of voice supply information that AI doesn’t have the ability to use in defining a problem and finding a solution. We call this discernment.

The business side of LTC pharmacy involves personal relationships, kindled over time, which build trust and loyalty. Not something that AI can replace.

So, which do you think has a solid future? Could it be the traditional LTC pharmacy professional or the pharmacy professional who understands how to use the AI tool to achieve results that solve problems?

X Factors for Pharmacists and Artificial Intelligence

  • Learn all you can about AI and how it’s being used in healthcare. There are many resources available to gain a comprehensive understanding of this transformative technology.
  • Take the initiative to have conversations with nursing home administrators, directors of nursing (DONs), and medical directors. Discover how AI is being used in their respective fields and gain insights into aspects they find most valuable.
  • Play with ChatGPT and other AI models. How would these models respond to prompts that mimic your everyday, real-life scenarios? Witness how the models respond to discover new ways to enhance your workflow.

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Written by: Paul Baldwin, Baldwin Health Policy Group
Paul’s pharmaceutical industry experience in public and government affairs led to becoming Executive Director of the Long Term Care Pharmacy Alliance, helping lead the industry through the Medicare Modernization Act and creation of the prescription drug benefit. Paul was VP of Public Affairs for Omnicare before founding Baldwin Health Policy Group.

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