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Is AI changing the future of healthcare?

How technology is playing a big role in healthcare

Abigail LastWe live and communicate in an age where demands on our time are high, budgets are tight and technology is part of our everyday lives, enabling us to share information seamlessly via a multitude of platforms and devices. Technology is present in almost everything we do: in our work and home lives, connecting and supporting us in ways that are vastly different to that of even 10 years ago. Today we have augmented reality and virtual reality, the Internet-of-Things and Amazon, meaning brands are able to supply services on demand. The availability and speed of these services has increased our appetites for solutions that are quick and easily available.  

It’s not just our expectations with technology that are increasing. When it comes to our health, expectations are higher than ever. Life expectancy around the globe continues to rise and so the need for new treatments and a greater understanding of what’s happening in our societies health-wise is at an all-time high.

To help with these growing demands, technology is playing an increasing role in our healthcare and artificial intelligence (AI) is making its mark. AI, intelligence exhibited by machines rather than humans, has historically been used in areas like speech recognition and language translations and it’s now being used in healthcare and medical research and even has its own term, ‘in silico’, for medical research carried out using AI.

Big pharma is investing in AI; there are now dedicated AI-based drug discovery firms that big players such as GSK, Merck, Sanofi and J&J are turning to, with significant financial investments. Markets such as China and Australia are also embracing AI technology.

In drug development AI is being used to reduce the time and cost associated with developing new treatments and to support research technicians in identifying promising molecules faster. The faster we can identify potentially viable molecules, the faster they can reach the patient. AI not only supports the identification of viable molecules, it also provides the opportunity to discard those that aren’t viable sooner, thus reducing the budget and resources spent on progressing something that won’t work.

It isn’t just research where AI is able to provide tangible benefits; algorithms and robotic programmes in areas such as mental health and oncology are also being used to help physicians and patients, bringing a level of additional support to therapy areas that can be challenging for both the patient and healthcare professional.

In the US AI is being used in mental health to bring psychotherapy to those who need it at a time that works for them, offering access to people who can often need support outside clinic and scheduled appointment times, or those unable to attend face-to-face appointments. Patients may benefit from more flexibility with consultations and on-demand support, but we need to consider when AI is most beneficial and for whom. For example, an AI programme named Woebot has been created to act like an instant messaging service that emulates real-life, face-to-face interactions with a therapist. Woebot is a chatbot that has been programmed to read patients’ situations based on the responses they provide during the online chat so that tailored responses are provided.

Given that mental health in the US is one of the most expensive treatment areas, AI offers a budget benefit too, as a physician’s time isn’t needed.

We can’t forget that a computer or algorithm doesn’t replace human interaction and engagement. Can AI provide a holistic approach to integrated healthcare, providing the human touch and sensitivity often required? Another challenge is trust. How much trust should we be placing in an algorithm to help with medical diagnoses, what is the margin of error and what about years of experience? When should human interaction with a healthcare professional be introduced? In a research setting it seems well suited but could AI replace doctors and how much healthcare and pharmaceutical knowledge do the people creating these algorithms have?

As with a lot of technologies AI looks set to become part of the patient and physician journey, driving evolution in the healthcare sector. We are just at the start of its journey.

Abigail Last is an associate director in the healthcare team at MSL Group

Article by
In association with

MSL

23rd November 2017

From: Healthcare

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