Artificial intelligence could have a dramatic and wide-ranging impact on health care within the next 5 years. The technology is already being applied and has the potential to entirely transform and empower medical practitioners with the resources and tools they need to improve care and reduce costs.

One report suggests that the industry is approaching a ‘digital inflection point’ and is positioned for rapid growth and improvement. Moreover, according to a recent MGI report, the full potential health care service cost savings of AI-enabled initiatives would be $300 billion a year in the United States (0.7 percent of GDP). In the UK, using AI to target preventive care and reduce non-elective hospital admissions can save £3.3 billion annually.

There is enormous potential in AI’s ability to draw inferences and recognize patterns in large volumes of patient histories, medical images, epidemiological statistics, and other data. In essence, this would address an area of chronic inefficiency in the healthcare industry and would give doctors the means to make quicker diagnoses, forecast the spread of diseases and create better-customized treatment plans.

Healthcare in the age of AI

Within five years, the healthcare sector has the potential to undergo a complete metamorphosis courtesy of breakthrough AI technologies and here are some of the areas:

  1. AI virtual assistants will provide support for diagnosis and treatment

A multibillion-dollar AI effort by many companies is already underway, most notably in IBM’s Watson deployment of Ada, which functions like a digital advice nurse.  AI virtual assistants can assimilate, analyse, and share massive quantities of data relating to individual patients in addition to entire patient populations. The data will be of all types — patient histories, emerging threat and epidemiology statistics, images, video, location data, physician comments and treatments, and much more — all at scales impossible to digest via human effort alone. Doctors will then use this knowledge to continue to improve treatment. Best practices will shift to require physicians to practice with AI virtual assistants.

  1. Maximizing Doctor Patient Time

The widespread adoption of AI virtual assistants means that medical practitioners could treat 5X – 10X as many patients with chronic illnesses as they do today. According to a recent Research and Markets report, “A basic AI … today in clinical practices can be used for alerts & reminder, diagnostic, therapy planning, information retrieval, and image interpretation.” A tremendous amount of necessary labour can be automated and delivered concurrently via AI.

Physician AI virtual assistants will have the ability to converse and communicate. and will be able to support the physician in messaging with patients, answering routine questions, suggesting treatment options, and more.

  1. AI virtual assistants will support entire populace in health maintenance

Our greatest opportunity for AI-enhancement in the sector is keeping people healthy, rather than waiting to treat them when they are sick. AI virtual assistants will be able to acquire deep knowledge of diet, exercise, medications, emotional and mental state, and more.

Manually managing and recording daily nutrition, and fitness efforts has been tedious and difficult. But new technologies, including computer vision, natural language understanding, and machine learning, present interface capabilities that enable individuals to easily “show” or “talk to” their AI virtual assistant about what they’re doing. Further, AI virtual assistants can leverage other mechanisms to “know” what is transpiring via motion detection, IoT (internet of things) sensor input, and the like, to effortlessly collect valuable personalized data. Patients will have a constant “friend” providing a digital health conscience to advise, support, and even encourage them to make healthy choices and pursue a healthy lifestyle.

  1. Medical devices available in the home

Already, a new generation of in-home health equipment is emerging, tightly aligned with advancing imaging and sensor technology for tracking biometric variables and collecting more frequent measurement data.

For example, AliveCor’s mobile pad connects to smartphones and provides a personal EKG. This allows you to know anytime, anywhere if your heart rhythm is normal or if atrial fibrillation is detected. Another example is Scanadu’s test kit (under FDA consideration and soon to be launched), which uses AI to measure the level of chemicals in a urine sample and surface indications for several health conditions. There will be hundreds of other new examples in the very near term.

  1. Affordable tools for diagnosis and treatment will emerge

The majority of today’s smartphones have high-resolution cameras, accelerometers, gyroscopes, touch ID, microphones and speakers all of which could facilitate health applications. Small hand movements while holding the phone might provide a clue to Parkinson’s. A change in social network usage might indicate depression. Sentiment and/or vocal pattern analysis of speech might identify anxiety.

  1. Robotics and AI systems will assist patients with independent living

Robots are leaving “the cage” where they’ve traditionally helped manufacture major products like cars, and now will be in your home, reminding you to take your medicine, assisting in everyday household tasks such as doing dishes and folding laundry, accessing out-of-reach objects for wheelchair-bound patients, helping the elderly into showers and baths, even increasingly providing emotional support, as with Japan’s robot pets.

Beneath the hype

With the development of deep learning, symbolic AI, computer vision, natural language, and machine learning — the power of a supercomputer will be in everyone’s pocket.  Many of today’s familiar AI engines, personified in Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google Assistant or any of the hundreds of ‘intelligent chatbots,’ are still immature and their capabilities limited. However, within the next few years, they will be conversational, learn from the user, maintain context, and provide proactive assistance. With these capabilities applied in the health sector, medical practitioners will be able to give far more effective support to those in need and millions of citizens will be healthier. Widespread adoption could save trillions of dollars in healthcare costs.

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