A few decades from now, healthcare as we know it will see a fundamental shift. In fact, the transformation is already underway, driven by technological integration and innovation in healthcare. At the forefront of this revolution is the buzzword of the era: Artificial Intelligence (AI).
At this moment in the history of civilisation, it is ‘virtually’ impossible to visualise modern life without artificial intelligence enabling our day-to-day life in some way or the other. From social media and self-driving cars to classrooms and homes, AI is everywhere!
On this World Health Day, let’s take a look at what could be the future of ‘Health For All,’ with digitisation, emerging technologies and AI leading the way.
Into the future of healthcare
At the outset, three megatrends are driving AI innovation in healthcare, as highlighted in this year’s World Economic Forum Report.
Firstly, what we have before us is a ‘data deluge’ flooding the medical systems. The doubling time for medical knowledge in 1950 was 50 years. In 2020 it was just 73 days! With some technological help, this immense data — from new findings to day-to-day patient information — can be streamlined to suit our needs.
Moreover, when such data is fed into digital systems, we have a vast repository to train machines to aid with diagnosis and treatment, improving accuracy, reducing errors, providing early detection, and also predicting the risk of life-threatening diseases well in advance. For instance, the most common form of pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of less than 10%; but with earlier detection, it’s 50%!
Secondly, these technologies are envisioned to affect not only patient care, but also ease the burdens of healthcare professionals when faced with novel problems they haven’t witnessed before. A prime example is the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed global healthcare systems to the brink during its peak.
And thirdly, we are in the midst of a technological renaissance, the floodgates to which have been opened with the launch of Chat GPT — a language model trained on massive volumes of internet texts. And early adopters are already on it! Chat GPT has become a high-level technological assistant to medical professionals, aiding with mundane tasks such as medical paperwork, patient certificates and letters.
But it could also aid in more serious medical activities such as triage, that is, moving people, resources and supplies to where they are needed most. It could help with research studies as well, streamlining tasks like the selection and enrollment of participants in clinical trials.
Inclusivity, transparency and the perils of clumsy algorithms
At the same time, we must remember that there are profound ethical implications associated with such advancements. The first and foremost concerns stem from privacy and confidentiality — the foundation of doctor-patient relationships.
An article published in The Conversation states: “If identifiable patient information is fed into Chat GPT, it forms part of the information that the chatbot uses in future. In other words, sensitive information is ‘out there’ and vulnerable to disclosure to third parties.”
Another concern pertains to the efficiency and quality of such databases. Outdated references won’t cut when it comes to sensitive sectors like healthcare. This calls for plugging such databases with robust designs that provide accurate real-time references.
Finally, we have the issues of equity and governance looming before us. More often than not, the benefits and risks of emerging technologies tend to be unevenly distributed between countries, especially in the absence of strong global guidelines.
It isn’t easy to gauge the exact implications of artificial intelligence and emerging technologies from where we stand, but chances are it will get clearer as its use increases in the future. However, addressing the ethical concerns plaguing the sector should be a priority for governments worldwide going forward.