The role of AI in the future of healthcare

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The role of AI in the future of healthcare

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in recent years has seen it permeate many areas of our day-to-day lives – from predictive text on our mobiles, cybersecurity, personalised marketing and banking to smart assistants such as Siri and Alexa.

AI’s life-changing potential, however, may be even more dramatic in the field of healthcare where it is already having a significant impact – underpinning innovations in clinical operations, medical training, surgery, drug development and data management.

Its role is set to accelerate further as the industry continues to explore and exploit its considerable, far-reaching potential.

AI, in some quarters, has sparked existential fears but, its development, in general, is likely to be confined to augmented intelligence. It is unlikely, for example, that the technology will ever replace doctors of the future. Rather, experts predict it will have an increasingly crucial role working hand-in-hand with clinicians to deliver improved healthcare services and patient outcomes at a reduced cost.

Here our Willis Towers Watson team outline some of the exciting AI breakthroughs.

Cancer detection and diagnosis

A recent study published in the scientific journal Nature revealed that Google’s AI system could detect breast cancer in mammograms more accurately than human radiologists.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women around the world and is the second-leading cause of death among female patient.

An international team, including researchers from Google Health, Imperial College London and the NHS, developed a computer algorithm that was able to display a 1.2 per cent reduction in the number of false positives and a 2.7 reduction in false negatives, compared with a radiologist.

The NHS currently uses two radiologists to analyse each woman’s mammograms and the results showed that the AI model was as good as this double-reading system.

Co-author Professor the Lord Ara Darzi of Denham, director of the Cancer Research UK Imperial Centre at Imperial College London, said the findings offered clear insights into how AI can be used in real life.

“There will of course a number of challenges to address before AI could be implemented in mammography screening programmes around the world,” he added, “but the potential for improving healthcare and helping patients is enormous.”

In a further study published this year, scientists at New York University found that AI can diagnose brain tumours faster and more accurately than a pathologist. Researchers used the light from lasers to create brain images, which would not usually be visible in a scan, and a computer to read them.

Pain management

AI-based applications also look set to have an increasingly important role in helping to support clinical decision-making in the management of chronic pain.

An AI-powered smartphone app has already been developed and researched by Massachusetts General Hospital and HealthCare Pivot Labs to monitor and manage pain in patients with advanced cancer.

In a study, patients using the app received alerts on their smartphones with daily pain management tips and were prompted to submit their pain levels. The AI in the app was able to distinguish urgent from non-urgent pain and provide tailored educational feedback about how to self-manage it. If cancer pain was severe, or worsening, the app connected patients to their clinicians for care.

After an eight-week period, patients who used the app to monitor and address pain experienced a 20 per cent reduction in the severity of pain and had nearly 70 per cent lower risk of pain-related hospital admissions than patients not using the app.

Such AI tools may help to reduce cases where medication dosages are excessive, leading to possible addiction, and cases where medication dosages aren’t sufficient to manage pain effectively.

Drug discovery

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming how the pharmaceutical industry is developing new drugs – speeding up the process of drug discovery and development, and making it more cost-effective.

AI is helping pharmaceutical companies to collate, connect and analyse complex data, helping them to better understand diseases, to identify drug targets with a higher probability of success, aggregate the information needed for clinical trials and speed up their design.

Companies such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline have firmly embedded AI within their research and development, with the latter recently announcing a recruitment drive for 80 AI specialists by the end of 2020.

Experts are predicting that AI will become increasingly crucial to medical breakthroughs in the months and years ahead and to our medicines of the future.