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The robot doctor will see you now - why AI is the present and not the future of healthcare

  • 6 min read

Artificial intelligence is no longer a futuristic prospect for healthcare but something that is already having a transformative effect.

The potential of artificial intelligence to revolutionise healthcare has been widely discussed, including on this blog. But, as we found when we spoke to several experts in the field, AI is no longer a futuristic technology when it comes to healthcare and it is already having a transformative effect on the way services are delivered.

Already there are a wealth of real-world applications demonstrating the power of AI in delivering better outcomes for patients and underlining the importance of smart IT investment in delivering the best standards of care.

Maya Raghunandan Ph.D, molecular biologist and freelancer for Kolabtree, an online platform for freelance scientists, said: “AI is already improving the early detection of diseases including cancer and retinopathies. The use of AI in the analysis and review of mammogram and radiology images can speed up diagnosis up to 30 times, with 99 per cent accuracy.

“In 2017, Stanford University published a study describing the successful use of AI algorithms to detect skin cancer. In 2018, Google’s DeepMind technology successfully trained a neural network to detect more than 50 types of eye disease by analysing 3D retinal scans.”

AI in the NHS

In the NHS too, AI is already being used to help make faster and more reliable diagnoses, and also to help the service make the best use of its resources in terms of prioritising those most in need of help.

Dr Mahiben Maruthappu, a practising doctor and adviser on NHS England’s innovation, technology and prevention portfolio, said: “In terms of diagnostic support, AI engines are already routinely examining radiology and ophthalmology images, the big advantages being that thousands of records can be viewed in seconds or minutes where it might take a human hours or days to go through the same volume of data.

“In some cases, this is being expanded to other diagnostic tests patients may have undergone such as blood tests, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and other examinations to suggest diagnoses.

“It is also being used in triage, taking patients’ symptoms and history into account to calculate the risk and likelihood of different conditions and determining the right follow-up questions to ask. This is helping to determine who, out of those patients waiting in A&E or having called 111, are in most urgent need of attention.”

The digital healthcare professional

As digital systems increasingly take root in the health service, managing them will no longer be the sole preserve of healthcare IT specialists, but they will become more central to the way every healthcare professional works. Dr Maruthappu continued: “In the past, people used to talk about the language of medicine being anatomy, pharmacology or physiology. Looking to the future, the language of medicine will be code. Healthcare professionals need to learn how to use and build technology because it is going to be part and parcel of their everyday job.

“It is going to be so prevalent across the entire health system. In the same way that a doctor needs to distinguish between a painkiller and a heart medicine, they will need to distinguish between different types of apps and technologies and how appropriate they are for patients.”

End-to-end patient support

With the health service under pressure to find efficiencies, all parts of the patient journey have become targets for digital innovation, including the interface with pharmacists.

Mobile app Now Patient allows patients to connect directly and confidentially with a doctor, who can then prescribe medication. The app then sources a nearby pharmacy and arranges delivery via courier. As well as the live chat function, the app also features AI-driven self-diagnosis and health management tools which can serve up regular advice and reminders to patients to help them manage conditions.

Lee Dentith, founder of Now Healthcare, which developed the app, said: “The idea for the app originally came from a personal experience when I found myself waiting for hours to see a GP to get a simple prescription. The main aim was to speed up the process for patients and doctors alike by allowing people to be the guardian of their own healthcare and reduce their reliance on in-person meetings with a doctor.

“Fifteen million people in the UK are living with chronic conditions, so allowing them to manage their own needs will be key to reducing pressure on the overburdened healthcare system.”

Patient-centric AI in healthcare

The scalable nature of AI-based health-management systems gives them a fundamental advantage over a wholly human face-to-face approach, as Dr Maruthappu explained: “In a world where demand for healthcare is increasing all the time, we have to ask ourselves ‘how do we make it sustainable’. The only way to do this is by empowering patients themselves to look after and manage their own conditions.

“An AI system can see millions of people at the same time, which obviously doctors are unable to do, and it can also have multiple specialisms. It can be a specialist in cardiology, respiratory medicine and orthopaedic surgery all at the same time, again very difficult for a human doctor.”

Dr Raghunandan explains how mass-market consumer tech is already making this a reality: “The rise in consumer health products like healthcare apps and wearables has drastically increased public awareness of and interest in healthy behaviour.

“Technologies that were, until very recently, only available to healthcare specialists are now being built in to devices from mainstream companies like Apple. The company now offers advanced functions like cardiac health tracking, fall detection and emergency SOS in its phones and smart watches, all of which use advanced AI algorithms to deliver mass personalised advice to users.”

Considering the users in AI health applications

While there is a consensus that automated systems have the potential to continue alleviating pressure on the health service while delivering faster and better outcomes for patients, it is not without its risks. Dr Maruthappu added: “The people that rely on the health service the most tend to be older people with multiple health conditions who may have physical disabilities or may have had a stroke or dementia.

“More often than not, they are not using technology like smartphones, which makes collecting data on them and how their heath is progressing very difficult. There is therefore a risk of building algorithms that focus on the worried well, as opposed to focusing on people who are older, who are more sick, and who really need technology and healthcare interventions.

“We need to build technology that older people with health conditions want to use and can use easily. The technology is what needs to adapt, not the people.

“Too often developers build apps with a 35-year-old active smartphone and social media user in mind, but these are not the ‘frequent fliers’ in healthcare.”

Fundamental change

Looking to the future, it’s clear that innovative approaches will be required to tackle the challenges being faced by the healthcare system. For Dr Maruthappu, technology has the potential to solve what is seen by many as the crisis currently facing the service.

He said: “Waiting times are going through the roof, bills are going through the roof and quality is sometimes suffering. Technology allows us to address all these issues together and at the same time. That’s why it’s going to be so pivotal in revolutionising this industry.

“Technology is going to be as transformative for healthcare as drugs and medicines have been. It will allow us to improve life expectancy, it will change the way we build hospitals and GP practices and the way patients live with their conditions. It is going to completely change the world of healthcare.”

Clearly, for IT managers in healthcare, the question is not when systems will need to be ready to support AI, but whether they already are.

Read more from healthcare experts on how the NHS can fully join the digital revolution.

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