The current pandemic has brutally exposed the inadequacy of the current global healthcare system. Challenges include:
- Imprecise alert responses
- Scantily distributed medical supplies
- Overburdened medical staff
- Insufficient hospital beds
- Untimely treatments or cures
A snapshot of how coronavirus broke U.S and European healthcare systems:
Starting from New York City in March 2020, the Coronavirus ravaged the U.S’ healthcare system rapidly. Despite the money from a $175bn bailout, many hospitals faced critical cash shortages courtesy the canceling of elective procedures that they rely on to make money.
A country that spends $3.6tn a year (more than any other country) on healthcare witnessed a sharp decline (40% of overall decline in consumption) in healthcare spending.
While some poor institutions had to put their much-needed staff on leave because they couldn’t afford to pay them, there were many others that spent millions on buying protective equipment for their staff, hiring agency staff and increasing the pay of employees so that they don’t get hired away.
Citing Italy’s example, per the 2018 Bloomberg ranking of the countries with the most efficient healthcare systems around the world places it on the fourth position. The Italian population also ranks as the second healthiest population in the world. Yet, the world witnessed in the months gone by how the country struggled under the pressure. Healthcare systems in other european countries faced a similar situation.
Underpinning the importance of AI in healthcare in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic
The current pandemic has brutally exposed the weaknesses of public health systems around the world. Yes, there have been technological breakthroughs in and adoptions by the healthcare industry. Yet, the rate of adoption has been extremely slow. There is an immediate need to quickly adopt underused tech driven containment tools. Acting as a gateway for AI adoption in health care, the speed at which the pandemic is pushing doctors and healthcare systems to adopt AI is heavily and equally ridden with both opportunity and risk. Fast-track promising new technologies means enhanced patient care as well as allowing unvetted tools to bypass regulatory processes thereby bringing harm to the patients.
Out of the several tech driven tools, Artificial Intelligence is of paramount importance. There is no doubt that AI has intimidated several medical professionals, given the fact that it may make them completely redundant. Per a report by the MIT Technology Review, a chest x-ray system based on AI quickly turned to be a blessing in the pandemic. Developed by Qure.ai, a Mumbai based company, qXR became one of the fastest and most affordable ways for doctors at Royal Bolton Hospital, U.K to triage coronavirus patients amidst staff shortages, overwhelming patient loads and delays in PCR tests.
A survey of more than 900 medical professionals in the U.S and U.K clearly highlights the eagerness of healthcare institutions to capitalize on the benefits offered by AI. Conducted by MIT Technology Review Insights and GE Healthcare, the survey states that 7 out of 10 hospitals have adopted or are considering AI. With that as a background, it is certain that AI in healthcare is going to be an accelerant and enabler in enhancing clinical and operational efficiency as well as patient care.
Covid-19 has brought the world at a juncture where the need for adaptable, dynamic systems in healthcare is pivotal more than ever before. With a vast amount of medical data being generated everyday, we need robust support systems to analyse and generate actionable insights. Even before the current outbreak, telehealth was gaining popularity both among healthcare institutions and patients. In 2018, the global telehealth market was $49.8 billion and was expected to reach $266.8 billion by 2026, increasing at a 23.4 percent compound annual growth rate, according to Fortune Business Insights.
The AI effect
There are several areas of healthcare where AI is already improving patient outcomes. These include:
- AI chatbots
- Medical records
- Wearables & devices
- Personalised genetics
- Lifestyle management
- Disease management
- Drug discovery
- Information & clinical trials
- Genetic research
- Data analytics
- Medical imaging
Apart from these facets, AI is adding value in three essential areas of healthcare namely speed, cost and accuracy. With critical aspects like stroke care and reduction in patient disability, decreased hospitalisations, reduced documentation time for doctors, and improved and accurate decisions, the various benefits of AI have started to create a connected ecosystem where healthcare is more collaborative, customised and cost-effective.
A paradigm shift rife with challenges
While the role of AI in healthcare is indisputable, the process of its adoption comprises multiple challenges. As with any significant technology transformation, integrating and deploying automated tools is not an easy task. The hurdles in adopting AI include:
- The disruptive impact of AI on existing processes
- Integration of new AI tools into existing systems
- Perceived as a threat
This explains why only 7 out of 10 healthcare institutions have adopted or are considering AI.
Navigating complexities & adoption of AI
Vis-a-vis to artificial intelligence in healthcare, the thought only goes as far as ‘diagnostic tools.’ But to be able to impact patient care in a more meaningful way, AI in healthcare needs to be viewed and adopted in a much more wholesome manner. Looked at from the inside, the entire healthcare process involves various complex steps. These include patient management, operations, administration, diagnosis, treatment, regulatory concerns, and the sheer volume of medical data being produced daily.
In the long term, AI will re-humanize healthcare, giving more time to doctors to heal and care for patients more effectively by assisting them in navigating complexities and eventually reducing healthcare worker burnout. With 81% of business facing and administrative healthcare workers believing that AI is helping them or will help them improve revenue opportunities, AI will prove to be a great enabler in aligning business ROI and clinical improvements.