Category Archives: Health and Humanities

Artificial Intelligence and the Medical Humanities: The Ethical Concerns of Data Commodification in Medicine

by Alissa Williams, HI Program Assistant

Dr. Kirsten Ostherr, the Gladys Louise Fox Professor of English, Director of the Medical Futures Lab at Rice University, and an Adjunct Professor at the UT-Houston School of Public Health, gave her talk, “AI and the Medical Humanities: An Emerging Field of Critical Intervention,” at the October Health and Humanities Research Seminar. Discussing the past, present, and future role of artificial intelligence (AI) in medicine, Dr. Ostherr argued that AI and related “datafication” practices are coming to constitute a new social determinant of health, a term that refers to “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play [that] affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.” (Datafication is the process of collecting information about something that was previously invisible and turning it into data.) Dr. Ostherr’s lecture was an enlightening take on the potential positive impacts of AI, but also a warning as to how dangerous its reach can become if it goes unchecked. The seminar began with a chronological mapping of AI’s appropriation into the medical field and ended with a call to action for scholars across all disciplines, as well as the public, to participate in the advancement and regulation of AI as it relates to medicine and health.

Prior to 2015, the application of AI in the medical field involved “a lot of speculation,” but “little action” according to Dr. Ostherr. While AI was initially thought to be a threat to the job security of health care professionals such as radiologists, some now see it as a potential tool for making health care more efficient, more effective, and more accessible to historically neglected populations. But AI, especially when combined with datafication, also poses potential harm to patients and others. Dr. Ostherr argues that the health data about themselves that individuals both purposefully and inadvertently make available on social media platforms, websites, and personal wellness devices (e.g., Fitbits) can be commodified for exploitative purposes, largely without the permission or even knowledge of the patient whose data is being commodified. While research into the social determinants of health can be used to promote health equity and health justice, it can also be used to reinforce existing forms of bias and exclusion and even create new ones. For instance, companies can use data about the neighborhoods people live in or even their degree of political participation to deny them health insurance, charge them more for it, or even deny them employment.  Rather than using data to improve people’s health and health care, companies can use it to manage their own financial risks. In other words, instead of making healthcare and its infrastructure more accessible to all individuals, including those belonging to historically marginalized groups, AI and datafication can exacerbate the gaps that already exist by amplifying the biases that helped create these inequities.

On the other hand, however, Dr. Ostherr mentioned two websites in her talk, and, that have begun to use AI as a means of enabling patients themselves to monetize the sharing of their data under privacy constraints that the patients choose. Although these websites have not yet garnered a prominent following, they serve as examples of the potential AI has to help develop more positive and transparent ways of using individuals’ health data. Dr. Ostherr believes that the health humanities have a crucial role to play in determining how AI and other modes of information technology are used in the fields of health and medicine. Dr. Ostherr emphasizes that this is indeed a collaborative effort that needs to take place between disciplines in order to ensure the needs of the public are met from all angles with diversity in mind.

Rearticulating Medicine and the Humanities: An Undergraduate Perspective

By Shruti Patil

My strengths have always been in the hard sciences. I understood equations, tables, diagrams and graphs and therefore spent much of my childhood performing rudimentary science experiments. My windowsill was perpetually lined with salt crystals growing in cups and budding lima bean plants, and my floor had scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle of the human anatomy. While I excelled in my science and math classes, I suffered through my English and writing courses – an experience to which I think a lot of students in the sciences can relate. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school, when my English courses became more challenging, that I felt compelled to take them seriously. Up until this point, English seemed like a trivial subject, one that relied on fickle interpretation rather than on hard facts. My entire upbringing had championed the value of observable evidence, and the interpretative nature of the humanities struck me as a useless pastime. But I quickly learned that an insincere effort yielded less that optimal results in my classes, and so I was forced to seriously engage in the texts I was assigned in order to succeed. Eventually, I found myself invested in the things I was reading and began to grasp the power literature has to move and mold people. I developed enough of a passion in literature by the end of my high school career that I decided to double major in English and neuroscience.

When I entered UT this fall, I grappled with how best to integrate these two disparate fields. They simply were not areas I expected to see in communication with each other in academia. I desperately wanted to avoid the institutional silos that would have me to attending my science classes in one part of my day and my English classes in another. Through some idle summer research, I happened upon the faculty page of Dr. Philip Barrish, Professor of English, and noticed that he listed “medicine and literature” as a focus of his research. I was initially astonished by mention of this interdisciplinary field. In my past education, science and English had been isolated from one another and the thought that they could not only coexist but complement each other delighted me. Until this point, I believed that science and literature were incompatible fields of study, and I regarded my English major as combatting the stereotype that STEM majors make poor writers.

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The Evolution of Substance Misuse Prevention Among Teens

Dr. Lori Holleran Steiker presents research on how culturally grounded social work can aid in youth substance misuse prevention
By John Carranza

How have efforts to curb substance misuse among teens evolved over the past several decades?

High rates of adolescent drug use in the United States has posed a problem to researchers of human development for decades. In the 1960’s, the epidemic of teen drug use began to sky rocket, causing researchers who study human development to begin seeing drug use as a social norm. In an effort to curb widespread drug use, programs such as D.A.R.E began sprouting up to educate youth on the risks associated with drug misuse and to teach students how to resist peer pressure. Although these programs ameliorated the issue of widespread drug misuse among teens, the research has shown that these successes were not, in fact, due to these programs’ attempts to educate youth, but rather due to the sustained and long-term interaction that these programs fostered between teachers and students. The more successful programs additionally accounted for the maturation process of adolescents and the cultural environments that adolescents negotiate daily.

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On Medical Racism

Dr. John Hoberman discusses racial bias in the practice of medicine and medical education
By John Carranza

How has the Western legacy that divides human beings into distinct racial categories affected the practice of medicine in the U.S.? Today’s secular classification of race is grounded in the study of human anatomy. In the late 19th-century, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a professor of medicine, measured a variety of human skulls, from which he ascertained five racial classifications: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American. The simultaneous colonization of the Americas, driving and driven by these racial classifications, solidified the privileging of white colonists over colonized populations, engendering a racial folklore of white superiority that has been handed down through generations.

Blumenbach’s 1795 Example of Human “Varieties”

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