For a moment imagine this: a system that can pick up signs of coronary infarctions years before the symptoms show up. Now be warned, because the next thing we want you to imagine takes a tremendous leap of imagination. If medical conditions, such as heart diseases, can be anticipated or predicted, wouldn't you be willing to pay hospitals to keep you from coming to the hospital with early preventive solutions? That would turn the hospital industry upside down - from being incentivized to prescribe tests, fill beds and perform surgeries to actually keeping patients away. If you have been hoping for such a future, your prayers are being answered. Artificial Intelligence is steering healthcare in exactly that direction.
There is growing interest in how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be applied in the healthcare industry. Industry followers had identified more than 90 AI startups in healthcare by August 2016i and more are being funded each day. Given the complexities of the world of medicine and human aspects of healthcare, it might take some time for AI to become mainstream but there are several areas in which these startups and scores of other technology companies are leveraging AI to drive the initial wave of superior lifestyle management and remote monitoring, mental health management, drug discovery, imaging and diagnostics, patient risk scoring, post discharge care, early detection of cancer, depression and anxiety, emergency rooms and hospital management. A major breakthrough that AI will enable is with its ability to deliver and manage care for under-privileged populations in emerging economies.
AI - or computer science techniques that enable systems to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision making and language translation - is reshaping and reinventing healthcare and will have a profound impact on society and the economy.
It won't be long before patients will be discussing their condition with cognitive engines such as Wipro HOLMES™ with conversations like, "HOLMES, please send my blood sugar test results to the doctor and check if I need to make changes to my prescription or schedule."
To see where AI was headed, Wipro sponsored a global study of The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) called Artificial intelligence in the real world: The business case takes shape. The study examined the current state of AI in healthcare, manufacturing, financial services and retail. The study found that these industries, especially in North America, are actively testing AI with around a third of them in an exploratory phase, another third who have begun to experiment and a tenth who have begun to utilize AI in limited areas. The study found that 2.5% have deployed AI widely. Among these, the implementation score was the highest for health care and life sciences at 2.53 (followed by retail at 2.50) - on a scale of 1-5.
The reason for the excitement around AI was attributed by researchers at Stanford University and at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute whom our investigators spoke to, to the fact that in the medium term healthcare provision holds brighter prospects for AI application than other fields. This can be attributed to the vast amount of patient and medical research data the industry has accumulated and continues to generate.
The study also revealed where the thrust for these bold AI initiatives comes from: non-traditional competition. AI is viewed as being disruptive and respondents across the survey felt that delaying plans around AI would make them vulnerable to new tech entrants (43%). About half the respondents (46%) were concerned that AI-based competition from start-ups would be a bigger threat than incumbents.
Where will AI impact healthcare the most? Respondents said that the maximum impact would be around improved customer service (35%), operating efficiency (27%) and decision-making (22%). These could be considered as broad indicators of where investments in AI will be made for the industry as well as where we may see the first widely successful implementations of the emerging AI technology.
Interestingly, AI is also creating new markets for healthcare. In Norway, Your.MD has built a mobile app that uses AI techniques to diagnose patient complaints. It matches the symptom to publicly available clinical data, information provided by doctors and further information that is crowdsourced. This helps the AI system learn and reach a diagnosis as part of pre-primary care - a market that doesn't exist today. Your.MD will ultimately filter people so that they don't have to unnecessarily visit a GP or a hospital.
The implication of this is enormous. Your.MD and other such AI-based initiatives could reduce the pressure on existing medical facilities, indirectly improving the level of care. Which really means that AI will not just bring about improvement, it will force a major shift in how health is managed.