Ethics and AI in the Healthcare Industry on the hello, Human Podcast

Our podcast, hello, Human, offers an open forum to discuss the latest topics in artificial intelligence (AI) and how it’s being applied in the real world. We talk with not only the pioneers of AI, but also those who are putting AI to work transforming businesses, finding novel solutions to age-old problems, and advancing what humans can accomplish.

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Episode 12 - Ethics and AI within the Health Industry
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In episode #12, we talked with Zahra Timsah, Enterprise Leader for AI Governance at MassMutual, and holder of a B.S. in Biology, an MBA, a Masters Degree in Advanced Molecular Biology, and PhDs in both Biochemistry and Cancer Biology. Professionally, Zahra has provided her expertise to Johnson & Johnson and Bristol Myers Squibb, led artificial intelligence programs at pharmaceutical companies, served as CEO for a big data/AI firm, and co-founded a healthcare AI company.

Early in her career, working on drugs to treat prostate cancer, Zahra discovered a knack for biostatistics. She then combined her statistical methods and programming interests to advance healthcare research methods, eventually focusing on cancer drug discovery and development. It ultimately led to her being chosen as one of the “250 Great Minds” at the University of Leeds, where she earned an MBA in parallel. 

“Business practices drive the healthcare industry, so I needed to know business, I needed to know management, I needed to know finance to ensure that valuable work is socialized and implemented in an efficient manner,” Zahra recalled.

“With the life science landscape being increasingly complicated, I found out that companies must constantly evolve. What better way than the adoption of artificial intelligence.”

Combining Healthcare and AI

Zahra applied AI to mimic human logic and solve complex medical problems, such as drug development. It’s an area lacking advanced technologies, she said, which makes it a slow and expensive process. But AI can help design and synthesize new drugs and find new uses for existing drugs. And it can be used to better evaluate medical images for earlier disease detection. 

“The way AI rapidly processes this large amount of medical information and arrives at likely medical causes for the cancer symptoms can dramatically reduce the diagnosis-treatment-recovery cycle for cancer patients,” explained Zahra. “A neurological disorder like epilepsy, it spreads across the brain. If AI is used to identify abnormal scans as early as possible, this would be crucial in improving a patient’s treatment options and also, of course, the ultimate outcomes.”

As her work in healthcare expanded, Zahra noticed a market gap that AI could fill and started two companies, AMCL and Assurance, to address those market needs. Combining healthcare and AI does propel governance to a critical level. So, most companies look to outside experts for help.

“What these experts do is they’ll try to establish and implement morally responsible and defensible AI platforms from an ethical perspective,” said Zahra. “It’s hard to achieve, but AI principles must be translated into actionable steps so that they can guide and influence company operations. For that, experts with both technical and business skills are needed most of the time, so that they can contextualize these principles into guidelines, into best practices that truly drive AI development and risk mitigation.”

Three Principles for AI Governance

Zahra pointed to three principles companies should consider in establishing governance efforts: fairness, transparency, and accountability. Fairness ensures AI treats everyone equitably. Transparency brings trust and explainability. Accountability facilitates both transparency and fairness since it keeps track of the data “supply chain” of vendors and technologies that turn data into insights. 

Going deeper, Zahra added other governance considerations for AI in healthcare, including social benefits, privacy, and security. Add in the dynamic nature of data and related processes, and governance becomes a complex issue. In her current role at MassMutual, that’s the challenge Zahra is working to overcome. 

“I make sure that there is a program that is a framework, a context in place to make sure that all of the AI systems being developed at MassMutual are developed in compliance with all of these AI principles, to ensure they are monitored throughout their life cycle, and the risk is mitigated relative to the risk appetite, relative to the risk tolerance of the company,” Zahra explained. 

Of course, every company wants financial success. AI is increasingly critical to that success, and whether the deliverables are widgets or healthcare, the goals are the same.

“My job, in general, and stemming mainly from having expertise in both business and technology, is to bridge gaps between the two fields—between business and artificial intelligence—so that one can optimize success in the companies, to drive revenue generation, to drive customer satisfaction,” concluded Zahra. 

Hear the Entire hello, Human Episode

Hear our discussion with Zahra in its entirety, including how she started two AI companies, her tips for the next generation of women in AI, and why failure is an essential part of success, all on the hello, Human podcast. And, subscribe to hello, Human on your podcast app of choice, or read this episode’s full transcript.