Greg Freiherr, Industry Consultant
Greg Freiherr, Industry Consultant

Greg Freiherr has reported on developments in radiology since 1983. He runs the consulting service, The Freiherr Group.

Blog | Greg Freiherr, Industry Consultant | Information Technology| May 09, 2019

Seeing Technology For What It Is

artificial intelligence

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

I miss the days when the difference between meaningful and meaningless was apparent; when the line separating relevant and irrelevant was easily drawn. I miss when truth mattered. When the old joke was just a joke: “How do you know when (the person, often a politician) is lying. His lips are moving.”

Today the joke is on us. All of us.

Conspiracy theories may have been around as long as anyone can remember — but today they have become mainstream. We Americans have come to believe in extremes. That goes for good as well as bad.

“Patient first” may be one of them. Noble? Yes. Inspiring? You bet. But, human nature being what it is, can it be achieved? Not, apparently, by Purdue Pharma.

If the maker of Oxycontin had practiced what it preached — commitment “to advancing the medical care of patients” — the opioid crisis might not have happened. But is this pharmaceutical vendor indicative of health care?


Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

A few years ago I attended an industry banquet where the main speaker talked about how lucky we are to be in such an altruistic profession. He was right, of course. We don’t have the rip currents of the tobacco industry. Our jobs focus on technology that visualizes disease. What could be better than that? Exploratory surgery? Fuhgetaboutit.

But there is a dark side.

We like to think modern medicine invented old age. It didn’t. If it did, life expectancy in this country would be going up. It is not. The tale of Purdue Pharma is an example.

Believing that pills can remedy pain has contributed to drug overdose, one of two key drivers for this country’s recent decline in life expectancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control. (The other, according to the CDC, is a rise in suicides — another topic worthy of discussion but beyond the scope of this article.)

A century ago, an influenza pandemic killed 675,000 Americans, nose-diving average life expectancy of U.S. newborns to just 39 years. By 2013, life expectancy had risen 40 years. In 2017 it was at 78.6; down from 78.7 the year before. Life expectancy in this country is dropping.

Will believing that vaccinations do more harm than good lead to further declines? The ongoing measles epidemic could be a wakeup call. But will it be?

In a broader sense, will we — technology’s advocates — become realistic? Will we understand — and embrace — the concept that the influence of modern medical technology depends on people?


What Technology Can and Cannot Do

Imaging can help us see disease. But it alone is not the answer. The use of imaging machines is just one step in a long journey. The other steps involve myriad aspects of health care, some of which have been around for a long time. None has been sufficient in itself.

Decades before Roentgen promoted the use of X-rays to look inside the human body, hand washing and disinfectants dramatically changed the practice of surgery, even everyday life. Thanks to germ theory, people around the world came to recognize that germs cause infectious disease. Yet in 1918 the H1N1 influenza virus infected 500 million people — about a third of the world population — and caused about 50 million deaths.


Fear As A Driving Force

It was fear that drove the development of vaccines, fear of influenza, measles, hepatitis, diphtheria and polio, to name a few. But even the development of vaccines was not enough, as evidenced by the current measles outbreak. We’ve come to expect the good without effort.

We continue to worship at the altar of technology as if technology had some god-like power.

We need to recognize and embrace that technology only provides us with tools and that these tools must be used. How we use medical technology is as much a determinant of its effect on health as the technology itself. It stands to reason, therefore, that only through wisdom can people get the most from medical technology.

This is all the more important today as we start looking for answers in a new form of technology; one that some say might ultimately confer wisdom, even embody it. I am referring to artificial intelligence (aka machine learning). This is especially dangerous — not that the technology itself poses danger but rather our attitude toward it.

I am reminded of this by dialogue written hundreds of years ago, dialogue that has as much meaning today as it did then. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves …”

Through the line he wrote for Cassius, Shakespeare was saying that people must take responsibility for their actions — or inactions — not simply say that the future is written in the stars. In Shakespeare’s time it was astrology. Today it is technology. The transitive property applies.


Seeing Technology For What It Is

I am not advocating that we throw out technology. Nor that it should be disused. On the contrary, technology should be used. But only for its purpose.

Technology provides tools. It is people who must decide how — and when — to use those tools. This applies regardless of whether the technology offers a look inside the human body or, as in the case of AI, insights drawn from data patterns.


Greg Freiherr is a contributing editor to Imaging Technology News (ITN). Over the past three decades, Freiherr has served as business and technology editor for publications in medical imaging, as well as consulted for vendors, professional organizations, academia, and financial institutions.

Related Content

Densitas Wins Major Procurement of Breast Density Software for DIMASOS Breast Screening Trial
News | Breast Density | September 20, 2019
Densitas Inc. announced it has won a procurement of its densitas densityai software for deployment in up to 24 breast...
Varian Unveils Ethos Solution for Adaptive Radiation Therapy
News | Image Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT) | September 16, 2019
At the 2019 American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) annual meeting, being held Sept. 15-18 in Chicago, Varian...
FDA Clears GE Healthcare's Critical Care Suite Chest X-ray AI
Technology | X-Ray | September 12, 2019
GE Healthcare announced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) 510(k) clearance of Critical Care Suite, a...
iCAD's ProFound AI Wins Best New Radiology Solution in 2019 MedTech Breakthrough Awards
News | Computer-Aided Detection Software | September 09, 2019
iCAD Inc. announced MedTech Breakthrough, an independent organization that recognizes the top companies and solutions...
Imaging Biometrics and Medical College of Wisconsin Awarded NIH Grant
News | Neuro Imaging | September 09, 2019
Imaging Biometrics LLC (IB), in collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), has received a $2.75 million...
A smart algorithm has been trained on a neural network to recognize the appearance of breast cancer in MR images

A smart algorithm has been trained on a neural network to recognize the appearance of breast cancer in MR images. The algorithm, described at the SBI/ACR Breast Imaging Symposium, used deep learning, a form of machine learning, which is a type of artificial intelligence. Image courtesy of Sarah Eskreis-Winkler, M.D.

Feature | Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) | September 06, 2019 | By Greg Freiherr
The use of smart algorithms has the potential to make healthcare more efficient.
Philips and Fujifilm booths at SIIM 2019.

Philips and Fujifilm booths at SIIM 2019.

Feature | SIIM | September 06, 2019 | By Greg Freiherr
Pragmatism from cybersecurity to enterprise imaging was in vogue at the 2019 meeting of the Society of Imaging Inform
Sudhen Desai, M.D.

Sudhen Desai, M.D.

Feature | Pediatric Imaging | September 04, 2019 | By Jeff Zagoudis
Burnout has become a popular buzzword in today’s business world, meant to describe prolonged periods of stress in the
Heath information technology diagram showing use of cloud storage.
Feature | Archive Cloud Storage | September 04, 2019 | Tyna Callahan
In healthcare, critical systems are being used to deliver vital information and services 24x7x365.
Global Diagnostics Australia Incorporates AI Into Radiology Applications
News | Artificial Intelligence | September 04, 2019
Global Diagnostics Australia (GDA), a subsidiary of the Integral Diagnostics Group (IDX), has adopted artificial...