It’s very clear that current healthcare systems are unsustainable — with a global shortage of clinicians who are already overworked, overtired and overwhelmed. This could be the early warning signs of a medical tsunami and therefore it is essential that we call upon innovation to steady the waters.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform healthcare from a system that is overwhelmed with ‘sick care’ to a system that is supported by preventative technology that alleviates demand on healthcare services — something we describe as ‘smart care’.
Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that over 50% of the world’s population lacks access to essential healthcare services and despite technology facilitating remote engagement with patients, there is still a huge issue with capacity. To solve this, we must create technology that is not only groundbreaking, but also accessible to the masses. Only then will we see the benefits of a healthcare system thriving at the intersection of technology.
Does artificial intelligence hold the answer?
As humans, we are naturally wired to only seek help once an issue has occurred. In the context of medicine, this is often when symptoms are prevalent and illnesses are in the latter stages of the disease cycle. Of course, this demands more resources and medical intervention than if the issue had been spotted much sooner. This scenario represents the need for prevention over cure and AI can help facilitate that.
Most diseases follow a cyclical pattern that provides antecedent signals at each stage of development. At the start, these signals will be fewer and weaker, however, as the disease progresses, these will become more frequent and more intense. As mentioned above, it’s at this stage that most people will seek help, however, monitoring vital signs such as blood oxygen, heart rate and sleep patterns, can offer a valuable insight into the human body and encourage intervention earlier in the cycle.
But what do these figures mean and how are you supposed to interpret them?
To most people, stats and figures presented to them by their latest smartwatch would bear little to no meaning beyond “I’m exercising” and “I’m resting”. However, an AI system composed of complex neural networks combined with Cognitive AI is capable of monitoring this data and flagging anomalous data that could represent a bigger issue.
Once you have an abundance of biodata and a technology capable of algorithmically processing this data to identify trends and patterns — you are still missing one key ingredient — cognition.
Cognition is the ability to acknowledge patterns in data and consider what they might actually mean — much like the diagnostic approach of any good clinician. However, in the field of AI, many developers have become fixated on machine learning, which focuses heavily on imitating human intelligence, with a complete absence of cognition and is essentially attempting to view the human body as an algorithm. We all know the human body is far more complex than a simple algorithm and a digital solution capable of solving the current healthcare crisis must be able to understand that each individual is unique, as is their lifestyle, medical history and family history.
Once you are able to combine those factors and produce actionable medical advice through the analysis of vital sign data, then you could limit the amount of chronic diseases and unnecessary trips to the doctor. Benjamin Franklin (1736) once said that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” and if we apply this to global healthcare systems, then we must focus on early prevention if we are to see long-term, sustainable change.
We’re getting too old for this
Global healthcare systems, including the US, are suffering at the hands of an aging population. Advancements in medicine, although welcome, are allowing individuals to live longer lives, which in turn, means that more people are calling upon the services of the healthcare and social care sector.
Exacerbated by the hardships of the pandemic, hospitals and care homes are operating well beyond capacity and many clinicians are also vastly overworked and unable to deal with the excess demand. As a default, humans are wired to action any sense of discomfort or abnormality with a trip to the doctor, however, a lot of older adults find themselves becoming more anxious about the medical setting as the years go on. This can actually often cause them to refrain from seeking support, which inevitably in the long run, will mean that treatment is insisted on further along the disease cycle. If an AI platform allowed for regular monitoring either within the social care setting or at home, this would not only reduce anxiety, but also provide a sort of “check engine” light for the human body.
Of course, the need for this technology is not exclusive to the elderly population and its application in everyday life would ultimately lead to a better informed population which only calls upon medical professionals when they are actually needed.
Accessibility is key
Despite its complexity, this form of remote monitoring is extremely accessible and affordable to all and unlike many care techniques, is appropriate for everyone. This unlocks vast potential for massive uptake of such technology and is the main reason that ‘hybrid AI’, which is the ability to combine cognition with recognition, is the key to achieving an era of ‘smart care’.
AI may be a daunting prospect to many, however it is not as daunting as the state of our healthcare systems. If real change is going to happen, we must think beyond healthcare’s current relationship with technology and work in harmony to create sustainable solutions that champion prevention over cure, and hybrid AI might just hold the answer.