AI in healthcare: Not without human touch

In the 2012 sci-fi film 'Prometheus', a robot is seen performing surgeries albeit without human control. While that may be a bit far-fetched -- as reel life is -- Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare is here to stay -- whether we like it or not.

AI is making inroads into healthcare like never before with a promise to make healthcare faster, accessible to everyone and cut costs.

Cut to India, and the health challenges are many and diverse. There is apalpable human resource shortage and often, healthcare does not reach remote areas.

That being the scenario, can AI help in providing sustainable healthcare here?

“Yes," says Abhimanyu Bhosale, co-founder, CEO, LiveHealth. "AI is a decision-making tool based on undefined or too many constraints. Sustainability in healthcare would mean improving quality and accessibility keeping the costs same or lower. AI can help us address quality and accessibility at the same time."

Moreover, Abhimanyu points out that quality doctors and staff are not available at remote locations.
“Changing that is not only expensive but also depends on the behavioural change in physicians. Artificial Intelligence helps us scale keeping the quality consistent. That’s a big step forward towards sustainability, which would make quality available at same and lower costs to everyone," he says.

On whether AI solutions can be afforded and accessible by a large majority of Indians, Dr Anoop Amarnath, chief of clinical services, Manipal Hospitals, says "It's very important to understand that the world is moving from experience-based medicine to experience and evidence-based medicine. In that context, data plays a very big role. When it comes to Artificial Intelligence, data becomes the fundamental thing especially for evidence-based medicine. Any such data-driven healthcare depends on the quality of data. Better the quality of data, better the Artificial Intelligence.”

"The Artificial Intelligence scenario started from 1950s. There was an AI winter in the 70s followed by a second AI winter, after which there was another spurt of activities driven by volume of data and fast processing speed. Diagnostics is one area where AI could make a difference," he informs.

AI does promise enhanced healthcare in such areas as early diagnosis, screenings, robot-assisted surgeries etc, and facilities such as virtual nursing professionals not far in the future.

However, in spite of all the promises, machines replacing medical professionals could just remain a tall order.
"It is clear that Artificial Intelligence alone cannot provide sustainable healthcare. Technology has to have an ecosystem of qualified personnel to make healthcare sustainable. In the near foreseeable future, AI cannot be seen replacing doctors," adds Dr Anoop.

Even as technology takes quantum leaps, the need of the patients, especially in this country, are so huge that meeting them is easier said than done.

"Accessibility to quality healthcare is a problem, but affordability is not. The government's Ayushman Bharat is a good initiative, and more efforts are being taken top down to make sure affordability is met. But natural progression in the healthcare market would be to focus on accessibility which would initially be expensive which over time become affordable," avers Abhimanyu.

"In India, we have seen costs of general surgeries drastically go down with specialised hospitals. Labs tests are more standardised, so health screening is cheaper than ever with the help of larger network and online platforms. A big contribution is more institutions trying to solve these problems and hence there will always be more opportunity in sector where the costs are higher," he adds.

India ranks 145th among 195 countries in terms of quality and accessibility of healthcare behind its neighbours like China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, according to a Lancet study. Though innovation is the need of the hour, the question is whether AI in healthcare will be accepted here with open arms.

“The primary issue in India is the lack of qualified professionals in healthcare. India is a very price sensitive market. In terms of newer technology, economies of scale matter a lot. If the scope of usage is large, it would be easier to factor in the pricing," says Dr Anoop.

"Any technology -- Artificial Intelligence or any other--- is a means to an end, one of the tools through which healthcare can be delivered. If we don't have an ecosystem around that, it will fall flat. If a proper ecosystem can be built around that, it could make a difference. A combination of qualified personnel and technology that can deliver healthcare to the masses is direly needed. Only this combination can make healthcare affordable," he opines.

"Though the challenge is overall healthcare applicability of AI, if we improve quality of primary health screenings, millions of lives will be saved," points out Abhimanyu.

Meanwhile, it seems to be a boom time for AI startups in healthcare. AI platforms are trying to win the trust of the patients and help them manage their diseases. In the midst of it all, AI also raises the bigger question of data confidentiality, a subject on which debates never cease to die.

"Data confidentiality, especially in healthcare, is sacrosanct. Hospitals and doctors are just custodians of data that belongs to patients. How we use it is important. Government has come up with guidelines called DISHA (Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act), which is path-breaking and good for data confidentiality. It sees that there is no unscrupulous use of data. Regulatory moves are very fundamental when using AI in healthcare. There should be clear cut guidelines," adds Dr Anoop.

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