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The writer is the founder of Thamesa site supported by the FT on European start-ups
The promise of artificial intelligence is that it will transform productivity. Nowhere is this more necessary than in health care. With aging populations, tight spending constraints, and overburdened medical staff in many healthcare systems, a productivity revolution can’t happen fast enough. As a doctor Margaret McCartney wrote in an FT Weekend essay marking the 75th anniversary of Britain’s National Health Service, the job of a GP today is ‘essentially impossible to do’.
But technologists have been promising to transform healthcare for decades, with mixed results. It is a sector marked by hubris, hype and false dawns. Even more famously, IBM claimed that its Watson supercomputer, which in 2011 won the Jeopardy! quiz, could also fight cancer, but it failed to emerge as “an all-purpose answer box”. The public also remains deeply suspicious of the use of AI in healthcare. A Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year found that 60% of US respondents were “uncomfortable” with using AI to diagnose disease or recommend treatment.
Can the latest promise of a tech-driven healthcare revolution, accelerated by the emergence of generative AI, hold this time?
One expert who thinks this will be the case is Lloyd Minor, Dean of Stanford Medical School, who says recent advances in AI will allow us to do what the creators of Watson envisioned. AI has long been used in specific areas of healthcare, helping to monitor possible drug interactions and analyzing scans of skin lesions, for example. But Minor says today’s generative AI models will impact every aspect of healthcare, from patient care and routine administration to medical education and drug discovery. While the internet has allowed us to access information, generative AI will allow us to assimilate knowledge, he says. “There are inflection points in human history: language, printing, the Internet. I think generative AI is a similar inflection point.
To make the most of this opportunity, Stanford Medical School last month partnered with the university’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence to address ethical and safety issues related to the use of AI. Its articulation RAISE-Health Initiative will track promising applications of AI in life sciences and healthcare, accelerate research, and help educate patients and healthcare providers about responsible uses of the technology.
AI is already opening up possibilities for health care to be delivered much more efficiently. One area is surgery. Proximie, a start-up founded by surgeon Nadine Hachach-Haram, has filmed more than 20,000 procedures, with the consent of surgical staff and patients, creating a new digital medical resource and infrastructure. The company’s mission is to build a global platform capable of sharing best practices in real time and improving education, case review and patient safety. Proximie can use generative AI to provide data-rich procedure summaries, track surgical instruments, and generate patient reports.
Hachach-Haram says there’s a lot of buzz around AI, but it should only be used in specific use cases that demonstrably benefit patients and medical staff. His challenge has been to persuade scrubs and suits that technology can produce better results and save money. But she also had to persuade patients that using intrusive technology can improve security while maintaining privacy. “We can use generative AI to analyze data in a secure way,” she says. “Data saves lives.”
Some of the big tech companies, which have a bad reputation when it comes to using personal data, are also training specialized generative AI models for the healthcare sector. Google is testing the medical chatbot Med-PaLM 2, which provides expert advice to physicians, at the Mayo Clinic in the United States. Google is rightly cautious about releasing this model more widely before its potential flaws are ironed out.
But one of the researchers who worked on the project is excited about how, once proven, the technology could transform global healthcare. Vivek Natarajan, an artificial intelligence researcher at Google Health, recently told the RAAIS conference in London that when he was growing up in India, he knew people who had never seen a doctor in their life. “Where will AI have the most impact? . . . Access to healthcare,” he said. This would allow us to imagine “a world-class doctor in the pockets of billions”.
It’s a tantalizing prospect. But in an industry that revolves around organizational complexity, personal sensitivity, and life-and-death decision-making, we better use AI wisely.
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