Improving Health Services With Artificial Intelligence

25/04/19 – Author: Martyn O’Connor, MBEProfessional Services Consultant at Somerford Associates

Perhaps too often, artificial intelligence, or machine learning, is given quite a bit of hype in newspaper headlines. For those reading about it, it may seem that there is a bit of buzzword bingo going on with no real substance. However, it would be a shame to let cynicism undermine the real benefits that artificial intelligence can bring to the health industry, and more specifically to the NHS.

It is no secret that junior doctors have possibly one of the
most stressful and difficult jobs in the country – up there perhaps with air traffic controllers. Wouldn’t it be good if we could use machine learning to reduce the workload on them, and to provide a sanity check on their decision making if they are tired, stressed, or overworked? Ten years ago, what we might have described as machine learning was often just a complicated series of if/else statements masquerading as actual intelligence. Today, with the emergence of genuine deep learning using neural nets, we have the capability to build artificial intelligence systems that actually mimic the human brain. When it comes to the more diagnostic focused areas of medical practice, this can prove a fantastic tool

Machine learning has a singular distinct advantage over humans – it is capable of analysing and comprehending truly vast volumes of data that no one human could ever hope to comprehend. This makes it, in some ways, capable of a far greater expertise than human diagnosticians could ever be. It can see, and remember in perfect detail, 100,000 X-Rays or CAT Scans. A human doctor might struggle to remember details of the last one they saw just minutes after they last looked at it. This advantage that machine learning has, could potentially save thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives annually. By investing in machine learning systems that are better able to spot the subtleties in our data that lead to diagnoses, or that can spot the outlier cases where a doctor has prescribed a medicine that though normally would be fine it would cause adverse effects in a particular patient, we have an opportunity to transform healthcare for the better. 

AI will never replace human doctors and nurses, but it can make their lives significantly easier, acting almost as a triage for new patients, checking on responses to treatment for existing patients, and even predicting the needs of future patients. Having a quantitative insight into the future needs of patients would allow health service providers to become proactive rather than reactive, to operate ahead of the curve rather than lagging behind it. The future benefits of AI to the health service are multiple, and we owe it to ourselves to invest in AI and to build a better future for everyone. 

I am not suggesting computers be put in charge of diagnostic healthcare. They have a very useful role, but I still would prefer the wisdom and experience of a human doctor or nurse to have the final say in my own interaction with the NHS!


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