In 2016, even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, investment in Artificial intelligence (AI) research in medicine had already outpaced every other sector. This new medical paradigm is exciting and concerning both patients and the medical profession in equal measure.
At its heart, AI in the medical world supports the collection of huge amounts of data and then engages in its subsequent intricate analysis. Scientific theoretical equations, and evidence based imperical statistics, which have traditionally been at the heart of medicine, can now be supported, challenged, or improved, with the enormous amount of data that AI provides.
Improved diagnoses and prognoses can be further enhanced by AI, with the added potential for education and learning to be accelerated through the capacity to cross-fertilise the data between different medical disciplines. Research garnered by one speciality can now be shared with another, to the common good of both. This cross-fertilisation is at the forefront of medical advances, as has been demonstrated in the battle with Covid-19.
The existence of artificial intelligence, by its very nature, implies that technology is usurping human intervention. In the field of human medicine this is an immediate red light to both patients and doctors, and even more widely to a society which has only recently woken up to the importance of data privacy. It is worth reflecting on a study conducted in 2017 in the US, which highlighted that medics spent 27% of their time in patient-facing situations and 42.9% of their time on patient records and desk work. These figures are matched in healthcare systems worldwide, including in the UK, and pinpoint patient concerns about their healthcare experience, concerns that have become more pointed with the decrease in face-to-face appointments during the coronavirus pandemic. However, Artificial Intelligence in medicine need not correlate directly with a dystopian robotic future – no-one is suggesting (yet) that your GP can be replaced by an android.
The tasks that AI can now assist with proves that its use does not exclude, for example, the presence of a GP in the medical model. A general practitioner can, for example, use an AI application, by inputting a digital photograph, to classify a suspicious skin lesion, drawing on vast amounts of data that will always outperform the GP’s own learning and knowledge.
Because AI offers such extraordinary resources, it is also particularly invaluable in remote geographic locations where human expertise is limited and doctors are not easily accessed.
As yet, however, AI is not trusted as an diagnostic system in itself, so the presence of a doctor skilled in the interpretation of the data, with the appropriate bedside manner is a vital component. In fact, some argue that the use of AI in medicine releases the practitioner to be more empathetic and compassionate than they had time for in the past.
By gathering data from a patient’s digital footprint, GPs can offer not only better patient service but also greater efficiency and outcomes of their medical conditions. For example, a doctor will be able to monitor a diabetic’s insulin levels without lengthy clinical referrals, following AI generated algorithms. The same can apply to other drug regimes as well.
Currently in the UK, Babylon, an online medical application, can be sourced by individuals who want an alternative to their NHS provider. Patients can consult a doctor online, have their symptoms interpreted and monitored, and access various testing kits. A medical professional is at the heart of the operation, but AI data is what drives and enables the whole model to succeed.
The ability to join up and slim down a variety of clinical departments, procedures and paper trails, is a significant advantage to not only GPs but also to the whole gamut of medical professionals. No single human can compete with the raft of data that artificial intelligence can collate, which frees them to deal with the emotional side of the equation, with which AI can never compete.
Physical and Virtual
AI in the medical field however, is not simply a process that collates and interprets data, to aid diagnosis and treatment. What have been described here are categorised as the virtual applications of AI, but there are physical applications that AI offers to assist medical practitioners and patients too.
The physical dynamic of AI in medicine relates to the use of robotics, whether that is to enable complex surgeries, employing intelligent prostheses for the physically handicapped, or even to managing some aspects of the care of the elderly.
Intuitive Surgical has developed a state-of-the-art robotic surgical system that has revolutionised surgery in the gynaecological and urological fields with the use of a robotic arm. Christened the Da Vinci system, the robotic arm is able to precisely mimic the surgeon’s hand, with 3D views of the process and the capacity to magnify the operation area. Minute incisions can therefore be executed with the precision that the human eye and hand alone would be unable to administer.
Nanobots are another AI offering in the medic’s new healthcare toolbox. These tiny biological machines can deliver drugs intravenously, to very specific targeted areas in the body, a facility that prevents healthy tissues being impacted and necessary side effects being experienced by the patient. Whether these nanobots are ingested or travel through our veins to execute their mission, they are then designed to degrade safely and ejected from our system.
No area of health care is being left untouched by the AI revolution. Even cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is being offered for a range of mental health complaints. AI therapy developed by the University of Sydney offers online courses that track a patient’s condition and supports their progress.
Stanford University is developing a programme of AI-assisted care called PAC (Partnership in AI-Assisted Care), which can sense any change in an elderly person’s behaviour that might signify a medical red flag, and the sensors employed can also be used to make Intensive Care Units even more efficient.
Whether identifying symptoms of cancer or heart disease with the use of IBM’s Watson Health AI resource, or using a system of sensors to support the elderly to live independently, Artificial Intelligence now follows our medical journey from cradle to grave. The technology is adapting and developing at immense speed.
A virtual nurse called Molly is also being developed – along the same lines as virtual personal assistant Alexa, Molly can provide follow up care for those patients who have been discharged from hospital. Of course the fact that smart technology is in the hands of vast numbers of global citizens, means that their own data from their smart phone application can also be brought to the medical professionals’ table, so that even more accurate diagnoses and treatments can be implemented.
There is of course a continuing societal and ethical debate about AI’s place in the new medical paradigm, but providing their medical outcomes continue to prove positive and the financial outlay is economical, it would seem that AI is as rooted in our health systems as it is in our entertainment systems. Alexa and Molly and their offspring are here to stay.
AI in medicine will not replace human beings, but can free up primary carers to use their best resource, which it turns out is patient empathy, the heavy lifting can be left to the robots. Medicine has the opportunity to become a precision data-based discipline, without losing its human dynamic.