A $22 million donation to UC San Diego Health will establish a Mission Control Center to manage emerging AI.


With artificial intelligence rapidly changing health care, UC San Diego Health plans to treat the condition with a level of attention typically reserved for rocket launchers and wildfires.

A $22 million donation from philanthropists Joan and Irwin Jacobs will help bolster the growing flow of digital data at the bedside for a mission control center at UCSD Health’s flagship La Jolla Medical Center.

Hundreds gathered in the university’s auditorium on May 5 to hear the latest ideas about how this technological revolution could happen, with Irwin Jacobs sitting in the front row soaking up every detail.

Jacobs, a digital communications pioneer with a doctorate in electrical engineering, said during a lunch break that the proliferation of information technology was evident during the planning stages of the UC San Diego Jacobs Medical Center, which bears his name. Medicine ultimately needs more coordination.

“It’s kind of decided, well, we’re getting all this information but none of it is really connected,” Jacobs said. “We’ve got to get it into one place, not just the hospital system, but the outside as well, and then we’ve got to have a few types of people who can quickly respond to what they see in there.”

Today, everything from bedside monitors to air conditioning devices brings endless amounts of digital data, and recent advances in artificial intelligence are showing the ability to sift through mountains of ones and zeroes to identify errors and predict who might be making them. A new set of symptoms is about to develop.

A good example, said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, chief medical and digital officer of the University Health System’s emergency department program, is analyzing bedside and electronic health record data to predict which patients are at high risk for sepsis. A runaway response to an infection that can lead to fatal organ failure.

“We implemented this algorithm six months ago and it was the lowest we have seen in the emergency department in the last six months. [vs.] The expected mortality and sepsis that we saw at UC San Diego Health,” Longhurst said.

Other efforts are underway to use AI to determine which patients develop bowel obstruction after surgery, and a remote telemonitoring program is delivering data to the homes of more than 2,500 patients with chronic disease.

More recently, UCSD has studied systems that allow its doctors to review AI-enhanced recommendations when responding to patient emails.

And this is just the beginning. Longhurst says each new app generates its own set of notifications. It is impossible to ask bedside staff to analyze this flow, which means that a separate team of professionals will be necessary to decide what should be transferred to caregivers and what should be kept.

Although demand for such an approach is already arriving, Longhurst said it is expected to take several years for the new command center to take off, including two components outside the hospital.

For now, AI’s potential to make routine tasks more manageable for clinicians seems to be generating the most excitement.

Panelists speaking at the symposium were asked what excites them most about the coming AI healthcare revolution in the near future. Most were hopeful that algorithms could free up clinicians’ time by helping with routine tasks such as responding to patients’ emails for medical check-ups and other mundane interactions that pile up during the workday and intrude on personal lives. Finding help in modern healthcare should theoretically allow time for meaningful conversations with patients.

UCSD public health clinical nurse educator Holly Smith hopes that’s the case. She said technology is essential to meet the healthcare needs of an increasingly aging population.

But the gains in efficiency must be balanced with the human touch, she said.

“We don’t want to use that data to extract that human piece to make it more efficient,” Smith said. A careful and managed approach is important, and ensuring that people in the field get the perspective of people doing front-line work with patients. ◆


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