The use of artificial intelligence in healthcare

Thursday 8th August 2019

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a crucial lynchpin in the digital transformation taking place today. Think about talking to your iPhone via Siri, ordering the latest products via Alexa or watching a new movie with the help of the recommendations list on Netflix.

But how can this cutting edge technology be used to transform the way we deliver healthcare?  Our Marketing Manager, Ben Murphy, tells us more.

Understanding the basics of AI
Let’s start at the beginning. Many of you will be familiar with artificial intelligence even if you don’t know it. It’s all around us and it’s creeping into everything we do, both at home and at work.

AI is many different things, but at its core it’s the idea of building machines which are capable of thinking like humans. These machines live and breathe off the huge amounts of data out there, all of which is collected and generated to enable machine thinking that’s in line with the decisions and actions we’d intelligently take as humans.

The role of AI within society and business is set to be so big that it’s already been dubbed the fourth industrial revolution; the natural successor to the computing boom of the 80s and 90s.

The possibilities
The potential of AI within healthcare is huge. As well as providing new applications to improve the delivery of care, AI is expected to bring improvements to back office tasks, operations and a range of clinical specialties — all of which are set to have a profound, positive and transformative impact on the health of the UK.

And with data providing the fuel for the AI rocket to launch, what better environment to lift off than healthcare?

The government has already outlined their vision to “transform the prevention, early diagnosis and treatments of chronic diseases by 2030” through AI, data and innovation. Under this vision, AI could ultimately become the first point of contact for patients, as well as helping healthcare professionals with diagnosis and even monitoring individuals’ health by analysing data from wearable devices or smart-phone sensors.

Similarly, in the US, a recent study and report has looked into how AI and algorithms can be used to sense when a patient is in discomfort or fallen out of bed or from a chair, which then alerts nurses or caregivers.

With the data and technology there, everything is in place to deliver further integrated care and more informed decision making with the help of AI; all of which will is firmly aligned with the Long Term Plan.

What’s happened so far

NHSX and the State of the Nation survey
Following the government’s mission to be at the forefront of the use of AI and data in healthcare, NHSX has been established to bring together world-leading tech, digital, cyber and data experts to transform the NHS into the world’s most advanced health and care system.

This has set the wheels in motion for the use of AI, with the State of the Nation survey showing how its already benefitting the health and care sector and identifying some of the barriers to wider deployment.

Amazon Alexa
The biggest and most well-publicised development came this summer, with the announcement of the NHS’ partnership with Amazon’s Alexa. This technology will help patients, especially the elderly, blind and those who cannot access the internet through traditional means, to get professional, NHS-verified health information in seconds through simple voice commands.

The voice-assisted technology automatically searches the official NHS website when users ask for health-related advice and questions. This technology has the potential to reduce pressure on the NHS and GPs by providing information for common illnesses and ailments from the convenience of a patient’s home.

Babylon Chatbot
The Babylon chatbot has also been introduced after an initial trial period in North London. The system’s AI has been designed around a doctor’s brain to provide healthcare for millions from the palm of their hands. It can understand and recognise the unique way that humans express their symptoms. Using this knowledge, combined with a patient’s medical history and current symptoms, it provides information on possible medical conditions and common treatments.

And while it doesn’t go as far as providing a specific diagnosis, it does guide patients to the most appropriate source of help, such as a hospital or GP, or reassures them that they can stay at home and take simple measures to get better. Thanks to this, patients can access basic healthcare advice more easily than ever before.

Technology Integrated Health Management
A recent project in Surrey and North East Hampshire has seen people with dementia benefit from the use of technology to enable them to live in their homes for longer. The project provides patients and their carers with digitally connected sensors, wearables, monitors and others devices, to monitor health and conditions. The information from these devices then helps people take more control over their own health and wellbeing, with the insights and alerts enabling health and social care staff to deliver more responsive and effective services.

Potential developments and considerations
AI’s potential within healthcare is truly limitless. Whether it’s virtual nursing assistants and chat bots or AI-assisted diagnosis and risk prediction, AI has the capabilities to transform healthcare as we know it.

The power of data
To fully utilise AI’s capabilities, data first needs to be shared and integrated more effectively across the NHS. Throughout our history, the amount of data collected has far outpaced our ability to analyse it — but it may be that AI in itself can help with this — through smart machine thinking and intelligence, the technology has the ability to speed up tasks such as note taking, appointments, scheduling and notifications.

Ultimately the algorithms of any AI tool are only as good as the data that’s used to train them. That means good quality, reliable data is essential to an effective AI system. If we can tackle these data challenges, the possibilities of AI are truly endless.

To help with this, Local Health and Care Record Exemplars are set to be introduced, allowing data to be accessed as patients move between different parts of the NHS and social care.

Building trust and a call to arms
Away from data quality, the trust of patients and healthcare professionals needs to be built with regards to AI. This can only be done through testing with reassurances required for data security and end-of-line procedures.

Speaking at June’s Reform Health Conference, NHS chief executive Simon Stevens announced a global call for evidence from technologists for how the NHS can best incentivise the use of carefully targeted AI across the NHS. He challenged tech innovators to come forward with proposals for how the NHS can harness innovative solutions that can free up staff time and cut the time patients wait for results.

Final word
As we work our way through AI and the digital transformation, it’s important to remember that the latest technology can save money as well as lives. In the immediate future we’re more likely to see AI utilised within back office and admin tasks, rather than frontline care and operations. But, if patients are supported faster, tests are performed more efficiently, and good diagnoses are made more swiftly, the whole system becomes more efficient and streamlined.

Of course, AI will never fully replace the unique role of a GP or doctor — some clinical scenarios simply aren’t cut and dried or appropriate for AI intervention — but what it can do is bring our NHS into 2019 through digital transformation while helping to increase efficiency, deliver better patient outcomes and continue the Long Term Plan.

To contact Ben email benmurphy@nhs.net