An AI Advantage in Health Care

April 3, 2023 by Beth Morgen

A pioneer in digital health research with a commitment to social impact is the first Wm. Polk Carey Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School

Long before artificial intelligence (AI) was making headlines, Ritu Agarwal was dedicating her doctoral work to the “nascent field” back in the 1980s.

With chin-length dark hair, Wm. Carey Polk Carey Distinguished Professor Ritu Agarwal smiles and wears glasses and a black top, necklace and blazer.
Ritu Agarwal, the first Wm. Polk Carey Distinguished Professor, is an expert in digital health research and its potential to improve health care systems, including equity and access.

Along with a PhD, she holds an MBA and a master’s in computer science. She devoted the first half of her career to research in information systems in business settings, yet she was always intrigued by the promise of digital technologies for serving societies.

Today Agarwal is an expert in the application of information technology, analytics, and AI in health care. She joined the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in the fall of 2022 as the first of three endowed faculty who will hold the title of Wm. Polk Carey Distinguished Professor. The professorships are named for Wm. Polk Carey, whose $50 million contribution to Johns Hopkins University in 2006 spurred the founding of the Carey Business School.

Agarwal is also the school’s founding co-director of the Center for Digital Health and Artificial Intelligence (CDHAI). Faculty associated with CDHAI includes multi-disciplinary scholars from the Carey Business School, Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Whiting School of Engineering, as well as several student fellows.

We caught up with Agarwal to learn more about her research in digital health, commitment to social impact, and roles at the Carey Business School.

Why did you re-direct your research towards health care?

In 2005, I experienced a sense of dissatisfaction with my research program. I wanted to have an impact with my scholarship because it was such a big part of my life. That’s when I pivoted to health care. It’s the business sector that affects each and every person on this planet and disturbingly, woefully lagging in its adoption and assimilation of digital technologies. Health care comprises close to 18% of GDP — that’s approximately one in every six dollars spent.

In what ways does being a Wm. Polk Carey Professor help to advance your research?

The professorship has enabled me to set up CDHAI. The center conducts cutting-edge research and focuses on the core goals of working closely with business partners; engaging with the local community, including the city of Baltimore; promoting entrepreneurship; interacting with policy makers; and educating executives and students alike — about what a new digitally reimagined health care system might look like and how we get there.

What does CDHAI aim to address?

The quest for a healthy life and access to high-quality health care are fundamental pursuits for all of humanity. The world is going to face profound challenges in the future, from an aging population to projected shortages of health care professionals. Employers, policy organizations, and all businesses are deeply concerned about rising costs. Digital health technologies and AI offer potential solutions to these challenges.

The research that CDHAI conducts helps move the needle forward in understanding how, when, and where innovations can be deployed. Everyone will be affected as we learn how to consume health care through digital channels; to better manage our own health with mobile apps, wearables, and sensors; and to age in our homes safely and comfortably using remote monitoring technologies and AI systems.

You are passionate about social issues surrounding health care. How could AI help?

One important and aspirational goal for me is to influence thinking about health equity. We want AI to mitigate health inequities, to identify and correct systemic biases that may be reflected in health care data, and to enable us to deliver solutions where health outcomes are no longer a function of race or ethnicity or which zip code you reside in.

My vision for the research is to create rigorous, scientific, and novel understanding of the role of digital technologies and AI in health care practice and delivery. I focus on translational work, to guide practitioners and those who are conceptualizing and bringing to market digital innovations in health care. Ultimately, it is the end-consumer who is the target: the patient who seeks a healthy life and access to health care.

In addition to leading CDHAI, you continue to teach. What do you find fulfilling about educating business students?

Guiding and mentoring the next generation of citizens who will go on to become (or already are) contributing members of society, future leaders, and thoughtful scholars is arguably the most important responsibility (and privilege) of a professor. What I love about teaching is the ‘eureka’ moment that you see in the eyes of students — when suddenly, the jigsaw puzzle emerges as a coherent picture. I am immensely gratified when I run into students whom I taught 20 years ago who remind me of a concept I discussed in class and how it served them well in their professional lives!

You’re incredibly dedicated to your work. How do you “disconnect”?

I am an avid hiker and simply love being outdoors and communing with nature, in a national park or in any beautiful part of the world where I can see spectacular landscapes not accessible any other way except on foot — and where the internet connection is weak! I also very much enjoy theater and the opera. Finally, travel is high on the list to interesting places all over the world of historic significance but that also have amazing trails.

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Topics: Alumni, Faculty and Staff, Friends of Johns Hopkins Medicine, Carey Business School, Fuel Discovery, Promote and Protect Health