Author: Piercosma Bisconti, Ph.D.

The SYNTHEMA project, an ambitious initiative aimed at integrating advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies into the healthcare sector, recently convened two pivotal focus groups. These groups were formed with a specific purpose: to gather diverse perspectives and insights from key stakeholders in the field of healthcare AI. Comprising technical and clinical experts, these focus groups were instrumental in shaping the project’s direction and ensuring its alignment with the ethical, practical, and societal dimensions of AI application in healthcare.

SYNTHEMA’s focus groups were composed mostly of consortium participants. The participants encompassed a broad demographic range in terms of age, gender, professional backgrounds, and expertise. Each focus group comprised approximately ten participants, ensuring a substantial and varied pool of perspectives. Separate focus groups were conducted to engage with two primary stakeholder categories: technical partners and clinical experts. These focus group sessions were carried out during the M6 in-person meeting held in Lisbon, providing an effective environment for open discussions.

The focus groups convened during the M6 in-person meeting held in Lisbon, marking a significant milestone in the SYNTHEMA project’s timeline. The decision to hold these meetings in person, as opposed to virtually, was deliberate, aiming to foster a more personal and engaged discussion environment.

The primary intention behind these focus groups was to elicit detailed feedback on the SYNTHEMA platform from two critical perspectives: those developing the technology (technical partners) and those who would be its end-users in clinical settings (clinical experts). The project team recognized the importance of understanding the unique concerns and expectations of each group, which could significantly impact the platform’s development and eventual adoption.

The discussions in these focus groups revolved around several core themes, guided by structured questions. The focus group facilitator initiated the dialogue by presenting the “Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI” established by the High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence in 2019. This set the stage for a nuanced conversation about how the SYNTHEMA platform could align with these ethical guidelines and contribute to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Participants were encouraged to imagine scenarios where the principles outlined in the guidelines might be challenged by the technology and to reflect on their potential concerns as either patients or physicians interacting with the platform.

The feedback received from these sessions was invaluable. Technical partners highlighted several ethical concerns, such as accountability in AI decision-making, privacy risks, and the need for transparency and explainability in AI systems. They also raised the issue of non-discrimination and fairness, particularly in the context of health data representation and the potential biases that could arise from data augmentation methods used by the platform. On the other hand, clinical partners focused more on the human aspect of AI usage, emphasizing the importance of maintaining human oversight, clear communication regarding data use, and the impact of AI on the physician-patient relationship.

One particularly striking revelation from the discussions was the extent to which bias in AI and data privacy concerns were prevalent across both groups, albeit from different perspectives. Technical partners delved into the specifics of technological solutions and safeguards, while clinical partners discussed these issues in the context of patient trust, and how to ensure it.

The insights gathered from these focus groups were not only illuminating but also somewhat surprising. The depth of concern over AI potentially replacing human judgment in clinical decision-making underscored the need for a balanced approach that respects and enhances the physician-patient relationship. It also highlighted the criticality of building trust in AI technologies among both clinicians and patients.

Given the richness of the discussions and the valuable feedback obtained, there are plans to conduct more focus groups as the SYNTHEMA project progresses. They have contributed significantly to the project by highlighting key areas of concern that need to be addressed and by helping to shape the ethical framework within which the SYNTHEMA platform is being developed.

In conclusion, the focus groups organized by the SYNTHEMA project were a success, offering a wealth of perspectives that are crucial for the responsible and effective integration of AI in healthcare. The discussions not only reinforced the importance of considering a wide range of ethical and practical concerns but also highlighted the diversity of opinions and expectations among those at the forefront of healthcare technology. As the project moves forward, the insights gained from these focus groups will be instrumental in guiding its development, ensuring that the SYNTHEMA platform is not only technologically advanced but also ethically sound and aligned with the needs and concerns of its users.

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