Is AI the answer to end-of-life care?

A group of doctors in New Jersey are trying to figure this out to help improve end-of-life and palliative care.

Is AI the answer to end-of-life care?
An AI (Artificial Intelligence) sign is seen at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China July 6, 2023. REUTERS/Aly Song/

Can artificial intelligence (AI) help us live forever? Or will it wipe humanity out entirely? These are looming questions ever since the rapid development of AI, kickstarted by OpenAI’s release of ChatGPT. But there are other questions on the table now, too. Can AI help us die? Can it help us figure out end-of-life care? 

“When someone is actively declining, you can see it, but being able to predict before that happens is hard,” explains Dr. Mihir Kamdar, who works with Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. 

The faster we figure this out, the more comfortable and cared for someone can be as their life comes to a close.

A group of doctors in New Jersey are trying to figure this out to help improve end-of-life and palliative care. They’re experimenting with an AI tool called Serious Illness Care Connect for calculating the likelihood that a patient will die within the next six months, which is the general medical standard for receiving end-of-life hospice care. If the tool finds that chance to be 70% or higher, then an evaluation for end-of-life hospice care is recommended.

With these tools, doctors receive an AI “nudge” to help support the decision-making process when it comes to this sensitive issue. It can also send doctors reminders to prompt this conversation.

Last January, a clinical trial of this algorithm-based tech published by Penn Medicine investigators in the JAMA Oncology journal found that the use of these tools pushed the rate of conversations between doctors and patients about end-of-life care four times higher than without. This same study found that with this AI helper, the use of aggressive chemotherapy and other intense therapies decreased at the end of life, making for fewer hospitalizations before death and a more comfortable quality of life near the end.

“Communicating with cancer patients about their goals and wishes is a key part of care and can reduce unnecessary or unwanted treatment at the end of life,” says senior study author Dr. Ravi B. Parikh. “The problem is that we don't do it enough, and it can be hard to identify when it's time to have that conversation with a given patient.”

By talking to terminally ill patients about their preferences for end-of-life care before the very end of their lives, doctors can ensure that they’re developing more individualized plans that better fit the needs, wants and values of each patient.