Arfan Ahmed, Ph.D

Assistant Professor of Research in Population Health Sciences, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q)

“Healthcare is one of the sectors most affected by AI.”

Dr. Arfan Ahmed is an Assistant Professor of Research in Population Health Sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q). He spearheaded the inception of WCM-Q’s AI Center for Precision Health in 2021, and currently teaches, conducts workshops, develops courses, and collaborates with discussion groups on AI research guidelines for the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) in Qatar. Dr. Ahmed spoke with “Hospitals” Magazine about the growing importance of AI in healthcare.

With a background in computer science, Dr. Ahmed’s academic journey commenced with a Ph.D. at the University of Hull, where he applied software algorithms to predict chemotherapy responses in breast cancer patients. Subsequently, he made significant contributions at prestigious institutions such as Imperial College London, the University of Aberdeen, and the University of Birmingham, developing decision support systems, and at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), his team built a prototype AI-driven health chatbot. The author or co-author of numerous original research articles, Dr. Ahmed’s work centers on technology applications in various medical fields, including mental health and AI utilization for modern assessment.  

How is Artificial Intelligence transforming healthcare? 

Because of the hype around large language models and real-life usage of ChatGPT, it seems as though AI appeared over the last year or so, but it was first coined in the 1950s. The foundation of AI is statistical analysis, and even back in those days, basic machine learning algorithms were used to diagnose or pick out specific patterns. 

Healthcare is one of the sectors most affected by AI since the technology is being actively  used to transform systems and decision support systems. Although AI is utilized across the board, in healthcare, it mainly falls into four categories—diagnostics, treatment, care management, and drug discovery. 

As technology rapidly advances, the integration of AI in healthcare is becoming increasingly important to enhance patient care, optimize clinical workflows, and improve healthcare outcomes. For example, it usually takes drug discovery millions or billions of dollars to get from the experimental stage to testing to penetrating the market. With AI, large pharmaceutical companies can dramatically reduce time and cost and get their product on the market much faster. 

AI is also about efficiency. Humans are prone to error, and so an algorithm trained with input from hundreds of clinicians could arguably be more efficient than a single clinician. Computer scientists and technologists cannot build AI systems without input from clinicians. For example, clinicians mark 1,000 images that show tumor types X, Y, and Z so that we can input them into the system and train it. When a system is trained on massive amounts of data, it can accurately give a diagnosis. Accuracy levels are only as good as the data inputted.

Machine learning is sometimes used interchangeably with AI, but it is a subset of AI. Deep learning, which is a subset of machine learning deals with much larger and more complex amounts of data and provides the ability to give output without any human intervention. For instance, deep learning can decipher and look for patterns and classify different types of tumors without human labelled dataset, so it has many advantages. 

What are the challenges around the use of AI in healthcare?

There are issues like data bias and other legitimate ethical concerns. However, one of the biggest and ongoing challenges is the question of liability. For example, if a clinician gives a patient an incorrect diagnosis using an AI-driven software system, who is liable? Is it the clinician, the machine learning algorithm, the software designers, the designers of the algorithm driving the software, or the hospital setting? Liability is an ongoing global debate at the moment.  

You spearheaded the inception of WCM-Q’s AI Center for Precision Health. Can you briefly explain?

WCM-Q’s AI Center for Precision Health was launched in 2021 as a dedicated research unit committed to making significant discoveries in AI and machine learning to transform healthcare, enhance wellbeing, and promote population health in Qatar, the wider region, and beyond. 

The AI Center conducts original research, fieldwork, and systematic reviews; provides instruction to pre-medical students on the application of AI in various spheres of medicine; contributes to WCM-Q continuing professional development (CPD) learning activities; and collaborates with local, regional, and international stakeholders to provide expertise on AI, its applications, and legal, procedural, and ethical issues arising from the rapid development of the technology. 

When our medical students go out into the world, whether they are doing diagnostics, delivering care, or monitoring patients, everything will have an element of AI moving forward. They need to understand these systems to remain at the forefront of medicine.

Because of the importance of AI’s contribution to the healthcare industry, we needed to also integrate it into our medical program. In 2022, we started teaching our pre-med students an introductory 3-week course on applying AI and machine learning in medicine. 

AI is not a topic that is widely taught at medical schools, and the little that is done is mostly too technical and advanced, so we spent a lot of time designing and formulating our course syllabus in-house. We simplified what is a highly complex topic so that we could teach a course at a beginner level for students with no prior knowledge or technical and mathematical background. We received exceptional feedback and now run the course annually for our students, while also expanding parts of it to an external audience. 

What motivated you to create the “Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare” course as a CPD activity? 

Once we successfully delivered the course to our students, we received much interest from external institutes and professionals. We felt that while we were educating the next generation, it was also necessary to teach current healthcare workers, so they do not get left behind. Many healthcare professionals do not fully understand this field, where it is going, and how it will affect their day-to-day routine.

By getting the course accredited both locally in Qatar by the Ministry of Public Health’s Department of Healthcare Professions – Accreditation Section and internationally by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME), we are making it available to a broader audience and including the added motivation of healthcare professionals being able to claim course credits for their participation. We now plan to run the course annually. 

Who is the target audience, and what does the CPD/CME-accredited course cover? 

The course is aimed at physicians, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, allied health professionals, researchers, educators, and students, and covers AI introductory essentials such as the history of AI and its application in healthcare, the fundamentals of machine learning, ethical issues, and challenges. It also includes a series of real-life examples that demonstrate the use of different types of machine learning algorithms and concludes with highly interactive group discussions in a journal club format. Working alongside me at WCM-Q’s AI Center for Precision Health is a team of highly knowledgeable and experienced computer scientists, including Dr. Rawan Al Saad, Postdoctoral Associate, Dr. Alaa Abd-alrazaq, Research Associate in Population Health sciences, and Ms. Sarah Aziz, Research Specialist. We possess a deep and current understanding of AI and are actively engaged in research and teaching, which puts us in a unique position to share our expertise on the topic. 

How do you envision the future of this topic and the course? 

To put it simply, AI is not going away. Some 30 years ago, students were taught how to use Microsoft Excel, but that is just a given now. As with many technological advances, in just a few years, students may possess introductory knowledge of AI, maybe even at a schooling level, so it will come to a point where we start offering more advanced courses that include research and practice, system design, and data inputting and labeling.

Our one-day course on “Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare” is designed as an initial step towards building an understanding and appetite for the topic of AI in healthcare. This introductory course is scheduled to be held in person at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) on Saturday, February 10, 2024.

For more information or to register, please scan the QR code or visit https://qatar-weill.cornell.edu/continuing-professional-development/cpd-events/upcoming-events  

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