AI: opportunities and barriers to improving healthcare

doctors and nurses walking down hallway

Written by Kath Mackay, Managing Director, Alderley Park

The advancement of AI and machine learning in providing better healthcare is already on the rise across the UK.

Increasingly clinicians are conscious that machine or automation-based healthcare enable a host of benefits due to the many innovative projects that are underway.

The NHS’ long-term plan has ambitions to drive its digital transformation to maximise the very practical benefits AI can provide. Currently, the main barriers to progress are the difficulties that some innovators encounter when negotiating unfamiliar regulations, lack of clinical safety and efficacy evidence, data curation standards, talent and skills, fear of change and concerns about the impact of working practices and relationships with patients.

Despite this, perception is increasingly changing. As wider society embraces new technologies, such as Amazon’s Alexa, there is a noticeable shift in attitude. Smart speakers are a brilliant example of an innovative piece of tech that although they haven’t been designed with healthy ageing in mind, will develop and support us as we get older.

From predicting risks in illness to streamlining resources, through our work at UKRI, we support innovators from a range of different fields, including fintech and engineering as they turn their attention to finding solutions to ease the pressure on our national health service. Some of these solutions are already making an impact in the field.

Freeing up clinician resource, E-Observations (eObs) allow doctors to observe patients digitally through hand-held devices and send them automatic alerts when patients are identified as being ‘at risk’. Similarly, to increase efficiency, Gendius is developing apps and artificial intelligence to measure and improve outcomes for patients with diabetes. The app, which is already available on Apple and Android, uses machine learning to predict disease progression and then help manage risk.

Both of these innovations, of course, lessen the burden on clinicians, but they could also contribute to far earlier diagnosis, meaning better and faster care, and fewer long-term health complications. Similarly, AI can deliver exceptionally tailored treatment plans that will have the same effect.

Snoozeal has developed a device to treat obstructive sleep apnoea, which contracts muscle at the rear of the tongue, through the use of a 20-minute daily toning regime of mild electric pulses. The device aims to be connected to an intelligent platform to collect biosensor data of tongue tone, which will be classified by machine learning, and AI-based to deliver personalised treatment regimes.

One of the most exciting developments is within one of the biggest challenges of our generation, dementia. In less than 20 years, the number of people aged 65 and over in the UK will increase by more than 40%. One in four of the population will be in this age bracket, and the rate of dementia sufferers will increase with it, testing the structure of our health service, but technology can help in the battle against the disease, and it already is.

Mind over Matter MedTech is improving early diagnosis in dementia by trialling novel, low-cost and portable brain imaging technology. This tests patients’ personalised risk for developing the condition at least a decade before any clinical symptoms would appear, potentially reducing the chance of a cycle of irreversible neuronal death.

Importantly, all of these innovations free up time, allowing practitioners to concentrate tight resources on the most serious cases. Introducing more innovation into the ‘problem’ of providing healthcare to our ageing society isn’t just an opportunity to provide a more efficient and cost-effective service to the end user, but also an opportunity for tech companies to fulfil an ever- increasing need.

However, to ramp up the support for AI, we do need to address the very natural human hesitancy to adopting artificial intelligence. There are a range of concerns, many of which are justified, including the issue of data and privacy, as the new partnership between the NHS and Amazon’s Alexa exemplified.

Naturally, data security needs to be addressed when handing our private information online and people are reluctant for AI to have too much information about what our profiles look like. Given the importance of data security, guidance has been developed and a code of conduct for data-driven health and care technology has been drawn up by the NHS.

The diminished number of human touchpoints is also a concern for many. The practice of medicine aims to be an exact science, but lived experience tells us there is an art in diagnosis, because human bodies rarely follow a rule book.

For older patients, the potential lack of face-to- face interaction could have serious consequences – with isolated individuals already experiencing loneliness, this could take away an important lifeline.

What AI can do, however, is give medical staff more time to concentrate on the more human elements of their roles, as complicated, boundary- breaking cases are as important as taking the time to talk. AI, therefore, should be viewed as a tool to drive efficiency and accuracy in the healthcare system by enhancing decision-making, and not as a replacement for human interactions between medical staff and patients.

The possibilities of what we can achieve could expand with AI. The potential that AI promises for early detection of disease and helping people before symptoms appear means the speed and efficiency with which results can be delivered is increased. This ultimately means patients can be moved out of a hospital setting and treated in the community, addressing the wider goals of lowering costs and increasing efficiency in the NHS, while also leading to a longer, healthier life.

The Government is increasingly backing the need for innovation in the future of healthcare. The formation of NHSx, a new joint organisation for digital, data and technology progression and the £250 million funding that the Prime Minister recently pledged to an artificial intelligence laboratory to boost dementia research shows the growing interest in the area.

In addition, the £98m Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Healthy Ageing Challenge has just launched its first funding competitions, looking for innovative solutions for healthier, happier and more independent lives as we age.

Both of these funding opportunities give an insight into the growing national interest in AI, opening a door for the UK to potentially be a world leader in both its use and application.

To achieve this, it is important that we have experts on board from a wide range of industries who have the opportunity to be ambitious in developing products which meet forward-thinking but necessary requirements. Specialists such as doctors, business leaders and academics will be key to reaching our full potential.

There is also a large opportunity for businesses and investors who have vital knowledge to offer expertise on the practical side of bringing AI products to market.

There are now hubs in the UK that are driving forward technological advancements in healthcare. We have five new centres of excellence for digital pathology and imaging, including radiology, which use AI medical advances; they have already been established in Leeds, Oxford, Coventry, Glasgow and London – each with partners across many parts of the UK.

The centres will develop more intelligent analysis of medical imaging, leading to better and more efficient clinical decisions for patients, and therefore giving more staff time for direct patient care in the NHS.

Each of the new centres can enable companies, in particular small- and medium-sized enterprises, to develop rapidly, and trial and implement products and tools through the NHS, for example, testing the use of AI to highlight potential
disease in a chest x-ray.

Through the centres, businesses will work with academics, doctors, patients and health economists, who can provide their experience in the industry to support new treatments and medicines that can save and sustain lives.

Understanding and embracing the enormous potential of digital technologies and AI is fundamental to creating a healthcare system suitable for 21st century demands. As our ageing population continues to grow, it’s important we keep innovating and seeking opportunities to improve.

By doing so, we can develop the new tools our doctors and clinicians need to deliver excellent standards of patient care and sustain the UK as a global leader in healthcare innovation.

Originally posted here.

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