[Disclaimer: Opinions stated below belong to Mona Flores and do not represent her employer NVIDIA.]
Dr. Mona G. Flores is the Global Head of Medical AI at NVIDIA, where she oversees NVIDIA’s AI initiatives in medicine and healthcare to bridge the chasm between technology and medicine. She first joined the company in 2018 with a focus on developing the healthcare ecosystem and before joining, she served as the Chief Medical Officer of digital health company HumanResolution Technologies, after over 25 years working in medicine and cardiothoracic surgery. She received her medical degree from Oregon Health and Science University followed by a general surgery residency at the University of California at San Diego, a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Stanford, and a cardiothoracic surgery residency and fellowship at Columbia University in New York. Dr. Flores also has a Master of Biology from San Jose State and early in her career, received an MBA from the University at Albany School of Business. She worked in investment banking for a few years before pursuing her passion for medicine and technology.1. You initially studied Business administration then moved to being a surgeon. What led to this change?
Actually, I started out as a psychology pre-med at the American University of Beirut, as I had always wanted to be in Medicine. It even says that in my high school’s yearbook! Wanting a quick exit from the Lebanese civil war raging at the time, I saw a degree in business as a fast ticket to financial independence and immigration. After a few years of studying and working in the field, I was fortunate enough to be able to pursue my childhood dream of being a surgeon. I thought if not now, when? And that is when I embarked on my medical journey to become a cardiac surgeon.
2. What are your 3 biggest accomplishments?
Raising my sweet loving son, helping my patients and forging a new career path that marries medicine and technology.
3. Can you name one promising AI healthcare advancement you foresee happening in the near future?
More personalized treatments ranging from custom interventions to surgical procedures to medications.
4. What is one habit you worked hard on breaking to improve your life or career?
Waiting for a chunk of time long enough to start a lengthy task despite knowing that there is seldom enough time to complete a task end to end in one swoop. I learned to be deliberate in taking advantage of small blocks of time and match them to specific doable tasks, to divide and subdivide tasks. It not only boosts productivity but provides a steady sense of accomplishment.
5. You wrote that medicine today is more art than science and highly depends on the physician's education and training as well as the economic status and geography of care receivers. Do you worry about inadequate high-quality healthcare access?
For sure. And I am not just talking about access to care in developing countries. Even in the US, access and quality of care varies by location and socio-economic status. AI should help level the playing field, provided its deployment is not limited to elite hospitals and clinics.
6. How do you describe the role of hospitals 25 years from now?
I think hospitals will transform into many smaller units for the delivery of specialized acute care. A patient will be admitted for a specific treatment, with diagnostics and treatment planning occurring in an outpatient setting. There will also be more automation and standardization of care delivery across hospitals.
7. What is the danger of AI making the wrong decision in healthcare? Are there any lines we don’t want to cross?
Making no mistakes is and ought to be our North star in healthcare. However, mistakes happen today even without AI. The goal should be that AI helps us make less mistakes, and that it continues to improve over time. It is also important to view AI as an augmenter and enabler of humans, not a replacement. AI is a powerful tool, and the better the tool, the more humans can do with it. We need to exploit AI for specific tasks that need automation and speed, and make sure that is continually evaluated.
8. What skills did you work so hard on acquiring?
Top of mind is surgical skills, which obviously take a lot of time and effort to acquire. But soft skills are just as important. Being able to listen, empathize, collaborate and lead are valuable skills that require lifelong reinforcement.
9. What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Believe in yourself and shoot for the stars. You might not get there, but you will get closer than if you don’t try.
10. What excites you and what worries you about the impact of medical technology on the future?
What excites me is the possibility of eradicating disease and preventable demise, and alleviating suffering. Let’s take heart attacks as an example. While accidents do happen and will continue to happen, having a patient die of a heart attack is not an accident. There are many factors at play including genetics, environmental factors, habits and lifestyle that come together to cause a heart attack. Specific trends from sensor data including wearables and lab tests can potentially voice the warning siren days and hours before an event. And precisely targeted medications and interventions ought to correct the course and intercept the heart attack way before it happens. Such is the promise of precision medicine, and AI will get us closer to this vision. What worries me is the slow pace towards precision medicine due to many reasons ranging from regulatory hurdles to misalignment of stakeholders’ incentives. I worry that the knowledge that we gain from AI might be used to discriminate against the sick instead of helping them, and most of all, I worry that we will ask too much of AI, be disappointed that it is not the magic bullet we perceive it to be and give up on it without giving it a chance to develop and reach its fullest potential.