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Houston expert explains health care's inequity problem

"Better and personalized healthcare through AI is still a hugely challenging problem that will take an army of scientists and engineers." Photo via UH.edu

We are currently in the midst of what some have called the "wild west" of AI. Though healthcare is one of the most heavily regulated sectors, the regulation of AI in this space is still in its infancy. The rules are being written as we speak. We are playing catch-up by learning how to reap the benefits these technologies offer while minimizing any potential harms once they've already been deployed.

AI systems in healthcare exacerbate existing inequities. We've seen this play out into real-world consequences from racial bias in the American justice system and credit scoring, to gender bias in resume screening applications. Programs that are designed to bring machine "objectivity" and ease to our systems end up reproducing and upholding biases with no means of accountability.

The algorithm itself is seldom the problem. It is often the data used to program the technology that merits concern. But this is about far more than ethics and fairness. Building AI tools that take account of the whole picture of healthcare is fundamental to creating solutions that work.

The Algorithm is Only as Good as the Data

By nature of our own human systems, datasets are almost always partial and rarely ever fair. As Linda Nordling comments in a Nature article, A fairer way forward for AI in healthcare, "this revolution hinges on the data that are available for these tools to learn from, and those data mirror the unequal health system we see today."

Take, for example, the finding that Black people in US emergency rooms are 40 percent less likely to receive pain medication than are white people, and Hispanic patients are 25 percent less likely. Now, imagine the dataset these findings are based on is used to train an algorithm for an AI tool that would be used to help nurses determine if they should administer pain relief medication. These racial disparities would be reproduced and the implicit biases that uphold them would remain unquestioned, and worse, become automated.

We can attempt to improve these biases by removing the data we believe causes the bias in training, but there will still be hidden patterns that correlate with demographic data. An algorithm cannot take in the nuances of the full picture, it can only learn from patterns in the data it is presented with.

Bias Creep

Data bias creeps into healthcare in unexpected ways. Consider the fact that animal models used in laboratories across the world to discover and test new pain medications are almost entirely male. As a result, many medications, including pain medication, are not optimized for females. So, it makes sense that even common pain medications like ibuprofen and naproxen have been proven to be more effective in men than women and that women tend to experience worse side effects from pain medication than men do.

In reality, male rodents aren't perfect test subjects either. Studies have also shown that both female and male rodents' responses to pain levels differ depending on the sex of the human researcher present. The stress response elicited in rodents to the olfactory presence of a sole male researcher is enough to alter their responses to pain.

While this example may seem to be a departure from AI, it is in fact deeply connected — the current treatment choices we have access to were implicitly biased before the treatments ever made it to clinical trials. The challenge of AI equity is not a purely technical problem, but a very human one that begins with the choices that we make as scientists.

Unequal Data Leads to Unequal Benefits

In order for all of society to enjoy the many benefits that AI systems can bring to healthcare, all of society must be equally represented in the data used to train these systems. While this may sound straightforward, it's a tall order to fill.

Data from some populations don't always make it into training datasets. This can happen for a number of reasons. Some data may not be as accessible or it may not even be collected at all due to existing systemic challenges, such as a lack of access to digital technology or simply being deemed unimportant. Predictive models are created by categorizing data in a meaningful way. But because there's generally less of it, "minority" data tends to be an outlier in datasets and is often wiped out as spurious in order to create a cleaner model.

Data source matters because this detail unquestionably affects the outcome and interpretation of healthcare models. In sub-Saharan Africa, young women are diagnosed with breast cancer at a significantly higher rate. This reveals the need for AI tools and healthcare models tailored to this demographic group, as opposed to AI tools used to detect breast cancer that are only trained on mammograms from the Global North. Likewise, a growing body of work suggests that algorithms used to detect skin cancer tend to be less accurate for Black patients because they are trained mostly on images of light-skinned patients. The list goes on.

We are creating tools and systems that have the potential to revolutionize the healthcare sector, but the benefits of these developments will only reach those represented in the data.

So, what can be done?

Part of the challenge in getting bias out of data is that high volume, diverse and representative datasets are not easy to access. Training datasets that are publicly available tend to be extremely narrow, low-volume, and homogenous—they only capture a partial picture of society. At the same time, a wealth of diverse health data is captured every day in many healthcare settings, but data privacy laws make accessing these more voluminous and diverse datasets difficult.

Data protection is of course vital. Big Tech and governments do not have the best track record when it comes to the responsible use of data. However, if transparency, education, and consent for the sharing of medical data was more purposefully regulated, far more diverse and high-volume data sets could contribute to fairer representation across AI systems and result in better, more accurate results for AI-driven healthcare tools.

But data sharing and access is not a complete fix to healthcare's AI problem. Better and personalized healthcare through AI is still a hugely challenging problem that will take an army of scientists and engineers. At the end of the day, we want to teach our algorithms to make good choices but we are still figuring out what good choices should look like for ourselves.

AI presents the opportunity to bring greater personalization to healthcare, but it equally presents the risk of entrenching existing inequalities. We have the opportunity in front of us to take a considered approach to data collection, regulation, and use that will provide a fuller and fairer picture and enable the next steps for AI in healthcare.

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Angela Wilkins is the executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more in the month of October. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's busy business event season is in full swing, and there are ton of local innovation and entrepreneurship-focused programming across the city. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for October when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

October 4 — Softeq Venture Studio Happy Hour

The Softeq Venture Studio is excited for you to meet the newest startups accepted into its 2H 2022 Cohort. Meet the teams and learn more about how they secured $125K in funding.

You'll have the chance to meet the startup founders, learn about the problems being solved, and learn more about how the Softeq Venture Studio de-risks growing startups.

The event is Tuesday, October 4, at 5 pm, at Yardhouse (City Centre). Click here to register.

October 5 — State of the Airports

Houston Airports is one of North America's largest and busiest multi-airport systems in the world and plays an important role in the greater Houston region's position as a great global city.

State of the Airports features Houston Airports Director, Mario Diaz, who will share the latest information and growth plans for Houston's three airports. Diaz will also address the important role the Houston Airports plays in bolstering Houston's position as an international air gateway.

The event is Wednesday, October 5, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at the Marriott Marquis. Click here to register.

October 11 — State of Space

Earlier this month, Space City celebrated the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation delivered at Rice Stadium, "We choose to go to the moon." Many decades ago, these words showed the world that Houston holds a place as the epicenter for the world's biggest space endeavors and while space exploration has changed tremendously since those famous words, Houston's reputation in aviation and aerospace only grows stronger.

Join the Greater Houston Partnership for State of Space on Tuesday, October 11, to hear from some of the sharpest minds in aerospace and aviation technology who continue to chart a vibrant future for Houston centered around NASA's Johnson Space Center and one of the world’s only truly urban commercial spaceports.

Speakers include:

  • Featured speaker and panelist: Vanessa Wyche, Director, NASA’s Johnson Space Center
  • Stephen Altemus, President & CEO, Intuitive Machines
  • Peggy Guirges, General Manager of Space Systems, Collins Aerospace
  • Panel Moderator: Arturo Machuca, Director, Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport

The event is Tuesday, October 11, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at Impact Hub Houston (1801 Main street 10th Floor). Click here to register.

October 12 —  Making an Impact in the Houston Tech Ecosystem

You may have heard that Jay Steinfeld was the founder and CEO of Global Custom Commerce, which operates the world’s top online window coverings retailer Blinds.com. Boot-strapped in 1996 for just $3,000 from his Bellaire garage, Global Custom Commerce was acquired by The Home Depot in 2014. Jay remained its CEO and later joined The Home Depot Online Leadership Team. After stepping away from these roles in early 2020, he has increased his involvement on numerous private company boards and serves as a director of the public company Masonite (NYSE: DOOR). He also teaches entrepreneurship at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and supports numerous charities. Jay is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Houston Technology Center. Active as an industry speaker on corporate culture, core values, how to scale a start-up, and disruption, he has more than 100 published articles.

But did you know that many of Jay’s former employees have started businesses of their own, formed angel investment funds, developed and led some of Houston’s best technology teams, and grown into pillars of the HouTech community?

Come hear what’s sure to be an intriguing panel discussion with Jay and several ex-Blinds.com’ers as they discuss company culture, core values, lessons learned, and thoughts on the HouTech ecosystem and take questions from the audience.

The event is Wednesday, October 12, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 13 — October Transitions on Tap

Transition On Tap is Greentown Labs' monthly networking event devoted to fostering conversations and connections among the climate and energy transition ecosystem in Houston and beyond. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, discuss solutions, and engage with our growing community. If you’re looking for a job in climatetech or energy, trying to expand your network, or perhaps thinking about starting your own energy-related company, this is the event for you.

The event is Thursday, October 13, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

October 14 — Tech, Tools and Tips: Digital Training Day at Impact Hub Houston

Struggling with a process in your business? There's probably a tech tool for that. Impact Hub Houston invites YOU to attend an extended edition of its Tech, Tools, and Tips Series hosted in partnership with Frost Bank.

The goal for this session is to provide small business owners with an overview of various digital tools that can help your day to day operations. By attending this event, you will learn about various digital tools and also have an opportunity to network with other small business owners.

The event is Friday, October 14, 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, at the Omni Riverway. Click here to register.

October 14-16 — Incubate Galveston + the Ion Hackathon 2022

A hackathon is a social design sprint that brings together the community to work in teams creating innovative solutions. Basically, it’s a party, and a 48-hour race between teams competing to develop solutions to problem-sets for cash prizes. Participants will work in small teams that have a collection of experts, entrepreneurs, students, and community members to tackle the below identified challenges:

  • Increase food access in urban core neighborhoods
  • Create opportunities for green initiatives, including environmental education, coastal resilience, and conservation
  • Propose home refurbishment programs and housing
  • Develop capacity for education and workforce skills development
  • Solve the plastic pollution issue in Galveston: Plastic trash in the water supply, on the beaches, and in the waterways of Galveston and surround areas affects the community in many ways (e.g., beaches look dirty, the plastic has chemicals harmful to health, and microplastics get into the environment and remain there for long periods of time. How can we solve this problem, removing and reducing waste and its downstream impacts, and make our community safer and cleaner? The plastic pollution problem can be address in the way of innovative preventive steps, innovation treatments, and public education, etc.
  • Offer creative solutions to other challenges

The event is Friday, October 14, to Sunday, October 16, at the Marmo Plaza. Click here to register.

October 19 — How to Build an App without Code, Part 1: Info Session (In-Person & Online)

Join Heather Wilson, a UX Researcher, Service Designer and Google Design Sprint Facilitator, as she teaches you how to build an app without code!

Benefits of building an app without code:

  • building a custom app could take months to a year to develop
  • coding could present problems when your mobile strategy is pivoting
  • allows for customization and the ability to make changes as needed
  • high costs can be associated with building am app
The event is Wednesday, October 19, at 6 pm, online. Click here to register.

October 20 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

Rising electricity prices, increasing concerns about grid reliability, and achieving carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by 2035 have refocused attention on the role of nuclear in the energy transition. This comes after a decade of low investments, accumulating nuclear waste, an aging fleet of reactors, public opposition, and regulatory mandates that stalled nuclear’s growth and led to declines in production. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has maintained its safety record, made remarkable progress in fusion and advanced nuclear reactors, and improved operating safety and efficiency.

The first topic of the 2022-2023 Energy Symposium Series, The Future of Nuclear in the Energy Transition, will address if and how headways in advanced nuclear reactors, fusion, and waste management can overcome the challenges of economic feasibility, efficient and safe waste disposal, and build public and regulatory support for the increased deployment of nuclear energy in the U.S. We are excited to bring our panel discussion of Critical Issues in Energy back on campus this year.

The event is Thursday, October 20, at 6 pm, at Hilton University of Houston - Conrad N. Hilton Ballroom . Click here to register.

October 26-27 — Fuze

Fuze is bringing together the builders and innovators in energy tech. Shutting down 5 blocks in downtown Houston for two days and covering three content tracks, the event is focused on discovering breakthroughs in energy technology.

The event is Wednesday, October 26, to Thursday, October 27, at 8th Wonder Brewery. Click here to register.

October 27 — Aerospace Investment & Engagement

Join the Houston Angel Network as they discuss the current and future state of aerospace innovation and investment, followed by pitches.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 8 am to 1 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 27 — Space-Related Technology Development and the Houston Innovation Community

In these presentations, Mr. Montgomery Goforth and other aerospace subject matter experts will discuss the technology development challenges faced by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the surrounding Aerospace community in our ongoing efforts as the hub of human spaceflight. Presentations will focus on the ways in which these challenges, and the associated opportunities, can be leveraged by Houston’s innovation community.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 4 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

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