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AI and the promise of better healthcare

Artificial intelligence, the ubiquitous buzzword that keeps seeping into our everyday conversations and across several industries, carries with it the promise for a better life. It brings about a promise for bettering our lives as individuals, citizens, customers, students and most interestingly of all, as patients.

Healthcare systems are under immense pressure due to the expectation of delivering high quality care in an efficient manner to patients within populations that are constantly growing with relatively low finance and skilled workers to deliver this kind of care. As a result, for many years, this industry has become increasingly stretched. Patients in need are left with inadequate access to proper healthcare, long waiting room times, and less time for doctors to interact with them and give them the full medical attention they need.

The head of Accenture’s global health practice, Kaveh Safavi, said that he expects AI applications to help solve the issue of the ‘iron triangle’ in healthcare which is essentially made up of three intertwined key factors within the industry: access, affordability and effectiveness. According to Safavi, these factors often result in negative trade-offs; meaning that the improvement of one factor is at the cost of the other.

However, with AI, there is a chance that the consequences posed by the iron triangle could be subsided as it would reduce costs, make treatments more efficient and make way for better accessibility.

“What we see now is a path to unlocking that triangle so you can improve one side without breaking the other,” said Safavi.

The three major zones of investment for AI in healthcare according to US health services leader at PwC, Gurpeet Singh, are: digitization, engagement and diagnostics. He believes that using AI could lead to more cost-effective operational processes, improved interactions between patients and healthcare professionals, and the creation of new products using AI that could diagnose and give health advice to patients.

PwC carried out a study titled ‘No Longer Science Fiction, AI and Robotics are Transforming Healthcare’ where it outlined the key benefits that this kind of advanced technology would bring to the healthcare industry.

It found that the use of AI and IoMT (internet of medical things) could potentially contribute to healthier lifestyles, as applications could encourage healthy behavior and could proactively manage lifestyles which could potentially diminish the need for consumers to visit doctors so often. Not only that, but it could provide healthcare professionals with a better understanding of the day to day patterns of their patients which would lead to better and more accurate guidance, support and feedback.

One of the key benefits posed by not just PwC, but many others who have done research on the matter, is the early detection of diseases. According to the American Cancer Society, a large number of mammograms provide false results. However, with AI, mammograms are expected to be 30 times faster and around 99 percent accurate. AI could also be used for administrative and repetitive tasks which would play a crucial role in helping decrease costs.

What is more is that this technology would also make great strides in decision-making and treatment. PwC found that pattern recognition could pinpoint a patient’s risk to developing a specific condition and could also better manage long-term treatment programs for patients.

End of life care could be revolutionized with AI and robotics as it would allow for people to be independent for a longer period of time, and could help the elderly in one of the loneliest times of their lives through having conversations with them and keeping their minds sharp.

While there are many more factors and aspects of our lives that could be improved by this technology, there are some issues and challenges that come with it. In fact, through a survey, Accenture found that one-fourth of consumers said that they were concerned about the technology’s ability to reason, stating that they do not know enough about the technicality of how AI works and therefore they would not use AI-powered health services.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges facing AI is trust. At a panel discussion at ‘AI Everything’ in Dubai earlier this month, MEP Emma McClarkin commented on the concept of digital trust and stated, “There is great fear. If you are ignorant about something and how it works, you fear it. It’s a natural thing. It’s a human reaction. We need to remember the human element of AI and that we can achieve that through education to take that fear factor away.”

She then went on to suggest that AI needs to be used responsibly and that it was up to policymakers and scientists to better understand AI and to educate both AI and the public better in order to start reaping the rewards and benefits that it could bring into our world.

During the same panel discussion, Kai Gait, global director strategy at GSK, also gave his insights on the issue. He said that AI is a “tremendously powerful and transformative” technology for the healthcare industry as it has great potential to bring medicine “out of the dark ages”.

Gait stated that he considers disclosing health information to be the biggest challenge in the industry with regards to AI. “I think people will eventually begin to see the opportunity of how it could improve health in the future as well as disease protection and prevention, but for now, there’s still paranoia around how data could be used,” he stated.

A key limitation to AI tech solutions is the cost of the equipment itself which will be particularly difficult for smaller regional and rural healthcare providers to be able to afford.

Daniel Housman, CEO at ConvergeHEALTH by Deloitte, is concerned that consumers may not realize the influence of AI once it is introduced into the industry, as a great deal of it will be happening behind the scenes.

He also outlined the relatively limited number of healthcare professionals available per patient. “We don’t have enough labor to manage everyone’s health all the time with a doctor and a nurse, so we need this boost of artificial brains to be able to support people.”

Indeed, the World Health Organization predicts that there will be a global deficit of 12.9 million skilled healthcare professionals by 2035.

Upskilling professionals to adapt and understand these new technologies is key and this can be done by training the next generation of medical students.

Philips has been working towards developing ‘adaptive intelligence’ which aims to eliminate inaccuracies that arise as a result of the flaws in human cognition, provide correct information to patients based on specific contexts and to base decisions on human ethics and values (which are absent in AI tech) to ensure the utmost efficiency.

Through its partnership with STC, the largest telecom operator in the Middle East, Phillips also aims to rollout telehealth solutions powered by AI in the KSA in a move that could transform the ability to diagnose and treat patients in remote and rural areas. The telehealth solutions provided by Philips allow hospitals and clinics anywhere in the country to be connected to command centers, through which doctors in other locations can treat patients remotely, providing better access to higher quality and more cost-effective care.

Furthermore, in addition to job creation in the healthcare sector, the Philips and STC partnership will support Vision 2030 in its wider goals of improving the healthcare sector, with the telehealth partnership supporting specific objectives such as the reduction of wait times and infectious diseases, addressing chronic diseases and offering better training for doctors.

“When we are able to reach even more people through mobile and connected technologies, empowered by adaptive intelligence, it will help bring better health and thus inclusive growth, as health makes an important contribution to economic progress to entire populations at lower cost. This is a great step towards delivering on the principles of value-based care: better health outcomes, improved patient and staff experiences, and lower cost of care across the region, which is crucial to building a healthier and more sustainable future,” said Özlem Fidanci, CEO of Royal Philips in the Middle East and Turkey.

The rate of people suffering from diabetes, obesity and other cardiovascular disease due to unhealthy lifestyle-related choices is quite high in the Middle East. In fact, cardiovascular diseases were behind 34 percent of deaths in the Middle East in 2015. Also, the diabetes death rate in the MENA region increased by 216 percent between 1990 and 2015.

The UAE has stood out amongst other countries in the region through its willingness the incorporate new technologies into their society. It appointed the world’s first Minister of AI last year and launched its Artificial Intelligence Strategy 2031. It has been working towards this strategy by bringing AI into many industries, namely healthcare.