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Will Artificial Intelligence disrupt health?

New technologies continue to be introduced into the sector and we should welcome them

Intelligent machines are increasingly operating complex manufacturing systems and replacing humans on factory floors, but they have so far not made significant inroads in health care. The sector’s most advanced machines, from ultra-high-resolution imaging instruments to surgical robots, are still fully controlled by humans.

But as robotic and artificial-intelligence (AI) systems become more advanced, will they eventually render doctors and nurses obsolete, with patients consulting a computer instead? The short answer is: not anytime soon. Health-care professionals will certainly become increasingly dependent on machines; but technology will augment, not replace, their abilities, and doctors will remain in charge of medical practices.

In his 2009 book `The Innovator’s Prescription’, Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen identified a spectrum of medical practices that range between “intuitive” and “precision.” Intuitive medicine describes when a doctor interprets a patient’s symptoms to arrive at a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment, the efficacy of which is often uncertain. Precision medicine – which should not be confused with personalised medicine – describes a rules-based process by which standardised treatments with predictable outcomes are applied to known health conditions.

According to Christensen, most of the medicine practiced today is closer to the intuitive side of the spectrum, and only a few diseases, primarily infections, can be treated using precision medicine. In fact, at the moment, the concept of precision medicine is incorrectly applied to improve only the outcomes of intuitive medicine, instead of identifying the causal mechanisms of diseases. As long as this is true, human know-how and engagement will remain integral to health care.

Treating unspecific symptoms without a prescribed roadmap requires effective decision-making and trust, which is a significant hurdle for machines. After millions of years of evolution, humans have developed a capacity for contextual intuition that enables trained doctors to make sensible and timely decisions in uncertain, data-scarce environments. Even the most sophisticated AI systems that we have today would need to be improved significantly in order to mimic this ability.

Communicating with patients poses an even greater challenge for machines. Explaining the many nuances of a mysterious disease such as cancer requires emotional intelligence and the ability to build trust with patients by delivering information effectively. Doctors also must exhibit cultural humility, so that they can take into account a patient’s social background when administering care. For the foreseeable future, machines probably will not be able to match humans in helping chronically ill patients whose prognosis remains uncertain.

One comment

  1. Computerizing medicalized health is way to go for Africa. It all depends. What gaps do we need to close ? It is like pointing out the real purpose of having a car which does 350 MPH. In very rare occasions does one need to get the gauge to 350 MPH! The same applies to the internet! It will be very useful when it increases on the critical number of Africans who can be categorised as “informed patients.” There is the disease and illness side to any ailment. The internet will help get many people in Africa aware of diseases. With interactive facilities, these people will add their own experiences of the “disease.” This experience is called illness. Africa needs technologies that create interactive patient forms. It needs to make her health care workers savvy enough. It needs to make her care facilities computerized. Most health workers are trained to diagnose diseases. Salaries are attached to disease groups. This explains the gap between what the health care workers prescribe and how patients make sense of things. If this disparity can be closed by the internet, Africa will begin to post quality care reports in large numbers. However, on the illness side, it is upon the skills and competence of the patient to break through the communication competence barriers that tend to arise in a doctor-patient relation. When patients become “informed patients” and are able to write or talk about their illnesses competently, we shall see a rise in the number of those who voluntarily seek quality life and wellness practices. All this is possible when Africa rises as one and invests in technologies that create interactive patient forms. It needs to make her health care workers savvy enough. It needs to make her care facilities computerized.

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