Years from now, there may be a shortage of psychiatrists in the United States as their mental health system is already overburdened and the growth in demand for the services of psychiatrists outpaces supply, according to a 2017 report from the National Council for Behavioral Health. 

Some proponents say that, by then, artificial intelligence, an unlikely tool, may be ready to help the mental health practitioners mitigate the impact of the deficit. 

Mental health crisis

Artifical intelligence and medicine are made for each other, it has shown promise in diagnosing disease, interpreting images and even zeroing in on treatment plans. Even though psychiatry is a unique human field in many ways, requiring emotional intelligence and perception that computers can't stimulate, even here, AI could have an impact. The field could benefit from AI's ability to analyze data and pick up on patterns and warning signs that are very subtle, humans might never notice them. 

Peter Foltz, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who published a paper about AI's promise in psychiatry, said that clinicians actually get little time to interact with patients. Patients tend to be remote, it is very hard to get appointments and oftentimes they may be seen by a clinician once every three months or six months. 

How AI could help

Artificial intelligence can be an effective way for clinicians to make the best of the time that they have with patients, and bridge any gaps in access. AI-aided data analysis could help clinicians make diagnoses more accurately and quickly, getting patients on the right course of treatment faster, but more excitingly. 

Applications or other programs that incorporate AI could allow clinicians to monitor their patients remotely, altering them to changes or issues that arise between appointments and helping them incorporate that knowledge into treatment plans. That information can be useful and lifesaving, since research has shown that checking in with patients regularly, especially those who are suicidal or in mental distress can help keep them safe. 

Some applications and programs designed for mental health already has AI, such as Woebot, an application based mood tracker and a chatbot that combines AI and principles from cognitive behavioral therapy, but it will probably be some 5 to 10 years before the algorithms are used in clinics routinely, according to psychiatrists. 

Dr. John Torous, a director of digital psychiatry stated that artificial intelligence is only as strong as the data that it is trained on. He says that mental health diagnostics have not been quantified well enough to program an algorithm. It is possible that will happen in the future, with more and larger psychological studies, but Torous says it is going to be an uphill challenge. 

An ophthalmologist and honorary professor at the U.K's University of Birmingham, Alastair Denniston, who this year published a research review about AI's ability to diagnose disease, argues that, if anything, technology can help the doctors to focus on the human elements of medicine instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of diagnosis and data collection. 

AI may allow users to have more time to spend communicating effectively and being more human, according to Denniston. Instead of being diagnostic machines, doctors can give some of that empathy that can get swallowed up by the business of what they do.  

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