Why the health industry won’t resort to robots

Zarmina Jafar explains why robots won’t take over the healthcare industry, but how AI will play an increasingly important role



Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the latest buzzword that has taken the world by storm. It has been projected widely and wildly as the next biggest disruptor of all things we know and see around us – embedded in all facets of our lives, be it home, work or play.

In the healthcare space we hear of theories why AI in the form of robots will become our new companions – an army of smart and intelligent doers of routine tasks that could well replace our trusted reliance on the familiar services from highly trained clinical professionals and in fact displace human interaction.

McKinsey & Company, in its publication on digital transformation in healthcare, discusses the changing landscape where never before have so many new technologies emerged at the same time with the power to affect the healthcare industry so quickly.

Next-generation genomics; big data and advanced analytics; machine learning and automation programmes; connected, sensor-enabled devices and wearables; 3-D printing; and robotics – all have the potential to fundamentally change the way healthcare industry will function in the future.

So, is artificial intelligence the next digital frontier in the healthcare space and at what cost? Will your expert cardiologist, neurosurgeon, radiologist or neighbourhood physician be the target as this next wave of futuristic technology systems and robotics unleashes?

Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente (the world’s largest integrated healthcare company) thinks not. He says: “I don’t think any physician today should be practising without artificial intelligence assisting in their practice. It’s just impossible (otherwise) to pick up on patterns, trends, to really monitor care.”

There seems to be a growing acknowledgement that AI will not replace; instead become a powerful tool in the hands of expert physicians who will then use it to deliver better care and improved outcomes for all of us.

The theory that reliance upon human judgment and traditional models of care delivery will be taken over by an automated machine-learning AI based Wall-E, who stores and processes vast amounts of information, is always analysing and comparing statistics and probabilities, diagnoses accurately, prescribes a personalised medication plan and an accurate disease prognosis perfectly, is only that – a theory.

While the automation of activities can enable businesses to improve performance by reducing errors and improving quality and speed, and in some cases achieving outcomes that go beyond human capabilities, “there’s a misunderstanding that someone can programme a bot that will take over everything the radiologist does,” says Carla Leibowitz, Head of Strategy and Marketing at Arterys, a medical imaging start up.

“Radiologists still use the product and still make judgment calls. [We’re] trying to make products to make their lives easier,” she adds.

Arterys reads MRIs of the heart and measures blood flow through its ventricles. The process usually takes a human 45 minutes, but Arterys can do it in 15 seconds. It is a fact too that radiologists use about half their productive time on the job studying and analysing patient images. The remaining time is utilised for critical tasks in communicating with other specialists, fellow clinicians and patients.

So what is the real future of AI in healthcare?

The scope of AI deployment in healthcare is extremely promising. The future includes physicians and specialists, armed with experience, judgement and technology-driven insights to provide new levels of excellence in healthcare.

There could be a day soon when we will walk into a clinic with an appointment that has been scheduled, managed and coordinated by personalised apps on our smartphone. We will be welcomed at the facility by a friendly ‘robotic assistant’. As it trundles along on wheels next to me, taking me to my meeting with the doctor, it will offer me a range of useful options. “May I sync your Fitbit and collect your past daily activity, sleep and heart rate data and merge it with your universal medical record?” It will help the doctor see how you have been keeping and really help him understand your lifestyle better and offer you solutions that you can implement.

“Would you like to view your doctor’s ratings and credentials and know their specialities? Do you have any specific ailments or health issues that I can look up and offer some advice on, while we wait for your appointment? Don’t worry, we shall verify everything with the doctor anyway,” my digital companion will continue as I smile and extend my wrist so it can sync my activity tracker with itself.

A detailed personalised assessment of my condition, needs and possible courses of action will be ready for the doctor’s review by the time I enter and settle in comfortably in the consultation office. Possibly a virtual medical record will be displayed across the digital desk that separates us, and together we will review specific recommendations that the AI-driven analytical back end system has generated.

As we talk the robotic assistant will continue to take notes, record doctor inputs, pull up information on demand for the doctor, and complete the episodic details of my visit – including electronically delivering the prescription to a pharmacy of my choice, where my medication will be waiting for me. It could schedule and set up tests that I need and remind me when to go for them, and it will collect any biometric, imaging or any genomic information gathered, store it securely and confidentially and ask me for sharing permissions.

It could even complete the tedious tasks of billing, payments, insurance claims processing and reimbursements as and when needed. I would probably have undergone a comprehensive genetic sequencing of myself to understand my potential risks; and when my results are compared with large data volumes from millions of patients using newer and newer artificial intelligence algorithms, they can offer a highly personalised and accurate prediction of my current and future health needs.

The robotic assistant will remain in touch remotely using smartphones, apps, and so on, and can continue to play a role in the monitoring of my progress. It could even swing into action when needed based on personalised alerts, reminders, measurable thresholds, biomarkers, health indicators and my personal preferences.

Our robotic assistant will certainly have a growing and important role to play in my care, but it will be effective in improving efficiency, automating administrative tasks, ensuring compliance, setting alerts and processing data that can be used to make better decisions. The actual decision, however, will and always should remain with the doctor.

The goal of a futuristic technology such as AI is to improve the clinical experience and the medical outcome. The role of technology and any smart intelligence systems should be to ensure that the actual time and interaction with the clinical care provider is best for the patient, by optimising and reducing time and resource intensive administrative tasks.

“Our desire to have somebody in control, I don’t think that will go away anytime soon,” said General Leung, cofounder of MIMOSA Diagnostics, which is testing a smartphone device that uses AI to aid diabetics.

“Someone’s always going to want a person to have made the decision.”

Bringing AI to drug discovery

There is another area where AI is beginning to make a significant impact. Pharmaceutical companies are beginning to see how AI can drastically reduce the drug discovery lead time from three to six years down to mere months in some cases. London-based BenevolentAI uses AI to mine biomedical information from clinical trials and academic papers to identify drug molecules that failed clinical trials but may have potential in other disease areas.

San Francisco-based Atomwise has developed a deep learning platform for novel small molecule drug discovery and is running more than 100 projects to deliver 72 potential medicines in a fraction of the time it took traditionally.

Palo Alto-based twoXAR is another AI-driven biopharmaceutical company that screens thousands of drug candidates and have announced positive data in rheumatoid arthritis, liver cancer and type 2 diabetes. As exemplified by the above and according to the source CB Insights report on Healthcare Horizons, start-ups are finally bringing medicine into the 21st century.

Closer to home

The UAE has always been an early adopter and leader in innovative technologies. We have a recently appointed Minister of Artificial Intelligence. Innovation and progress in these areas is going to be inevitable with this kind of support. Health and wellness will continue to be a priority sector. We have a Ministry of Happiness; the Ministry of Health now is the Ministry of Health and Prevention; the Dubai Fitness Challenge was a big success; corporate wellness programmes have become a requirement that employers have embraced.

“The foreseeable future is not going to be human versus machine, but human plus machine versus a human without a machine,” says Keith Dreyer, vice chairman of radiology computing and information sciences at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The human plus machine is going to win. This is going to be transformational.”

That is where our connected devices, AI systems and robots will become the lynchpin of this digital revolution that is coming, even in a conservative, cautious and highly regulated sector like healthcare.

Zarmina Jafar is founder of The Health Bank