The health technology revolution: AI-assisted physicians
Piotr Orzechowski, CEO of Infermedica explains why AI offers so many advantages over traditional rule-based decision trees and how integrating AI technology with physician expertise can improve patient care.
The concern over the introduction of automation in the workplace has been well documented. With some estimates indicating that by 2025, machines will do half of all work tasks, maybe the worries are not entirely out of place.
In the field of health, robotics and machine learning already have an impact on patient care, providing basic assistance in many clinical settings – undoubtedly life-saving work. Some may think that eventually the technology – especially artificial intelligence (AI) – will advance to a point where it can provide advanced consultation, without the need for a doctor. For others, interacting with a machine to determine a treatment plan will never be able to replicate a personalized consultation with a doctor, the latter having an unparalleled level of expertise and training.
Really, however, AI shouldn’t be seen as an existential threat to doctors, but rather as a companion. The two can work harmoniously side by side, with AI improving knowledge, expertise and time management. As healthcare organizations around the world embrace digital technologies to fight the pandemic, harnessing the capabilities of AI has the potential to dramatically improve patient care.
Technology adoption in healthcare
It’s no secret that technology is already very prevalent in healthcare. From portable devices sharing vital signs information to secure messaging apps for healthcare professionals, technology is transforming nearly every aspect of patient care. In the third quarter of 2020, European start-ups alone have raised 1.6 billion euros, revealing the phenomenal growth of health technology services.
In 2020, however, the pandemic has thrown an inescapable spotlight on the relationship between technology and healthcare. Earlier this year, when healthcare organizations around the world had to cancel routine and non-urgent appointments in order to cope with the demands of the pandemic, The uptake of telemedicine services and electronic consultations has skyrocketed. Virtual appointment services set to fundamentally disrupt the healthcare market with telemedicine services expected to be multiplied by seven by 2025.
Necessity has kept patients from physically seeing their doctors for minor health concerns, but it has brought digitalization to the forefront of healthcare around the world. These have generally been slow to innovate, hampered by levels of bureaucracy and complicated procurement processes, which have prevented rapid innovation and created a barrier to the adoption of technologies that can improve patient care.
And it’s not just telemedicine that has benefited: the collaboration between healthcare professionals and tech companies has introduced new solutions and devices in response to the virus at an unprecedented rate. For example, 3D printed valves and big data solutions offering real-time patient monitoring are just two introductions that reflect the enormous transformation that has taken place.
The healthcare industry has witnessed how collaboration between innovative companies, healthcare systems and physicians can find new ways to improve patient care and respond to the challenges of the pandemic, and it it is inconceivable to imagine that the change that has occurred will be reversed.
Within months, we saw systems rapidly adopt the technology – and physicians incorporating AI systems into their traditional practices is a next step.
Benefits of AI
Health systems are often overloaded. Emergency departments and doctor’s offices typically deal with patients who have conditions that could be treated elsewhere. This means that doctors and other healthcare professionals have more patients to see, which critically takes away from the time that can be spent with patients with more serious problems.
Misdiagnosis is also a problem. By nature, doctors are experts with extensive training, but sometimes incorrect patient diagnosis or missing warning signs can occur. For example, on average in the UK, it takes about eight years for endometriosis to be properly diagnosed, with patients commonly prescribed treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) instead.
AI-based consultations can alleviate these problems by helping humans, not replacing them. For example, initial consultations conducted by AI Solutions can triage patients to the most appropriate level of care, identifying cases where it might be more appropriate for people to seek advice from a pharmacist rather than a physician. This focus avoids a backlog of patients using the healthcare system needlessly, speeding up those in need of urgent treatment while freeing up physicians to spend more time with patients with complex problems.
Additionally, AI can provide physicians with enhanced information about a patient’s condition. Systems that analyze health issues while taking into account various risk factors including age, gender, and location, and suggest possible rarer conditions that share similar symptoms with more common problems, such as endometriosis, provide physicians with more actionable information. This can be shared before an in-person consultation, providing the most recent and accurate patient information, improving care and diagnosis.
Reducing the time it takes to cover basic questions makes in-person consultations more productive, efficient, and can help improve the rate of misdiagnosis. Indeed, a recent study on digital health services in Norway found that 72% of respondents benefited from better follow-up by their general practitioner through the use of electronic consultation, while 58% reported an improvement in the quality of their treatment. AI can go further.
Of course, there may be some reluctance to move towards digital consultations. Bedside behavior and interaction with the patient is a large part of the visit to the doctor. In a face-to-face meeting, a doctor can read nonverbal cues that can indicate how a patient is really feeling.
However, AI can make a difference here too, with solutions trained to understand the most nuanced movements or expressions; the system then transmits the information to the physician.
The future of health
Ultimately, a healthcare provider introducing AI to help patient care is like an accountant using a calculator. The skills of physicians are underpinned by a reliable and knowledgeable tool that helps them do their jobs more efficiently. Additionally, AI solutions are constantly improving, leveraging real-world use case data to help physicians make correct and timely diagnoses.
It is undeniable that the COVID crisis has pioneered the growth of health solutions around the world, what we are now encountering are health systems embracing innovation to meet the challenge of the pandemic and beyond. . Going forward, continuing to adopt technology to improve patient care is critical – and AI will have a huge role to play.