Written by on . Pegasus.

Man Vs Machine: the role of AI in healthcare

Emma Fieldhouse, an Account Executive in our Pharma team, asks will artificial intelligence ever replace humans when it comes to delivering optimal healthcare?

Many of us count Siri or Alexa as members of the household, Facebook recognises our friend’s faces (almost) better than we do and the option of owning a self-driving car is just around the corner. Whether we like it or not, artificial intelligence (or AI) is slowly creeping into our everyday lives and revolutionising the way we make decisions, live and work.

And healthcare is no exception. We’re already using touchscreen phone typing analysis to diagnose Parkinson’s disease, and robots are assisting in surgery, while incredible new technology is continually emerging with the potential to help improve lives.

Using finely tuned algorithms, AI is able to rapidly perform numerous high-volume tasks accurately and without fatigue, unlike humans. AI can quickly adapt and learn to analyse data, make diagnoses and solve complex medical problems. Studies have even demonstrated that in some cases AI does not only match human performance, but can actually outperform doctors, such as when diagnosing metastatic breast cancer and skin cancer.

Given this, it’s no wonder the government is driving the digitalisation of healthcare, spearheaded by health secretary Matt Hancock. AI, used correctly, has the potential to improve diagnoses, speed up waiting times and free up doctors, all whilst saving the NHS money.

It sounds great in theory – but does the machine always win? And is there anything these AI superbots can’t learn?

Recently, a friend went to see her doctor and was surprised when she was greeted by a laptop on a desk. It transpires that this trend in virtual healthcare is growing rapidly.

For instance, Babylon, ranked on the 2018 tech companies to watch list, has launched both a GP app – enabling users to pay for a consultation with an AI GP – and an AI chat-bot service, which provides free NHS 111 advice to over a million people in London. These services use algorithms to answer an individual’s questions about their symptoms, and provide advice on the possible cause and what action to take. Babylon claims its algorithms can even beat doctors in the GP membership exam, the MRCGP.

But numerous studies have demonstrated the enormous influence that emotions can have on an individual’s health.

For example, chronic stress has been shown to cause or exacerbate many serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease. Therefore, when making a diagnosis and determining treatment, doctors take into account any compounding psychological and social factors, which may only be noticeable through subtle cues in the patient’s language, or overall demeanour – factors which are likely to be missed by even the most intelligent algorithms.

Furthermore, studies have revealed the importance of continuity of care and how building up a trusting relationship with one doctor can improve a patient’s overall health outcomes. The human touch is still hugely important.

As AI continues to change how we access and receive our healthcare, it is important that we retain the ‘care’ that human interaction provides. Medicine is an art as well as a science, and meaningful communication, empathy and compassion are key to its success.  Whilst the myriad of opportunities for AI to help improve healthcare are clear, it is important that the role of AI is to help support doctors, not replace them.