In the last year, technology has played a huge role in keeping society connected. It’s enabled remote workforces to collaborate, allowed businesses to engage with customers in new ways, and keep families in touch.
Its importance in helping to combat the pandemic can’t be downplayed either. With in-person appointments needing to be canceled to limit the spread, telemedicine services and e-consultations filled the void; with healthcare having to be delivered from a distance, patient monitoring solutions that kept physicians updated in real-time became a vital tool; with nations across Europe trying to manage the spread of COVID-19, track and trace apps were quickly developed.
Simply put, in what has been a year of uncertainty, technology has been a shining light. So, what of the future, and particularly that of healthtech? How can the industry continue to adopt digital technologies to better equip physicians to provide greater care to patients and improve access to healthcare for all – patients, providers, and payers.
The rise of Artificial Intelligence
A step beyond the aforementioned technology use cases is the increased adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Robotics and machine learning (ML) are already having an impact on patient care and providing basic assistance across many clinical facilities. But the evolution of technology will only empower doctors further and AI is one of the healthtech tools that will enable them to do their job more effectively. Working harmoniously side-by-side, AI-equipped physicians will possess greater decision support and, crucially, time management – both of which will save lives.
The use of AI in healthcare is actually already increasing, with the number of organizations either using it now or planning to in the future doubling since the onset of the pandemic.
The AI-equipped physician
Healthcare professionals are tasked with making life-changing decisions, yet like the rest of us, they’re burdened by admin. In the US, physicians spend 16.6% of their working hours conducting administrative tasks and the number of hours is probably higher if non-working hours are considered too.
AI can lessen the burden by autonomizing much of the form-filling that inevitably comes with treating people, and this will only become easier to integrate as more patient records are digitized and stored in cloud environments rather than physically. When physicians don’t have to spend time completing admin – and they have full confidence that it’s being conducted accurately – they simply have more time for seeing patients and learning about conditions.
If considering how AI can have a more direct impact on patient care, we should also explore the symptom checking and triaging process.
In normal circumstances, a physician will take a detailed history and ask which symptoms a patient is experiencing to then decide how serious an issue is and what next steps are required. If being conducted at a hospital, this can result in the patient being sent to the relevant department and admitted. But, it can also result in them being sent home as their issue just needs some over-the-counter medicine and rest. The challenge with the latter scenario is that time and money which should be directed at more serious cases is being used on patients that don’t need to be there. The doctor isn’t able to focus on other patients that have potentially life-altering issues and, particularly in countries where healthcare isn’t free at the point of entry, it costs money for all involved; the patient, healthcare provider, and the insurance company.
AI healthtech solutions can decrease the occurrence of such events by conducting initial consultations and analyzing symptoms to guide the patient to the relevant level of care. Accessible through a range of platforms – including chatbot, voicebot, app or via a teleoperator, for instance – a patient could list their symptoms and quickly understand the level of urgency and required steps. This could result in them seeking advice from a pharmacy instead of a doctor, or it could see them referred directly to the right specialist who can treat their issue more quickly.
In fact, throughout the pandemic, AI symptom checkers have really proved their worth by asserting themselves as an incredibly effective tool. In such a never-before-seen situation, they have enabled fast assessment of symptoms and recommended the required steps in care, indirectly decreasing the risk of the virus transmission through helping to manage the flow of patients out of the overburdened emergency departments. Patients that simply didn’t need to be there were directed elsewhere.
Moreover, all of that rich information the solution captures can be used by physicians to make more informed diagnoses quickly. They no longer have to spend time taking histories, all the data they need is at their fingertips already and they understand the potential severity of the issue before they’ve even set eyes on the patient. Also, the data is used by the AI to learn and grow, meaning that its own knowledge base expands with each use – it’s consistently evolving to become a more knowledgeable resource.
Changing the healthtech landscape
This past year has shown the world how vital technology is to society and there’s no looking back. We’ve seen some impressive innovation in healthtech and ensuring that adoption continues to accelerate is paramount to improving medical care for all, but that will require education. While technology is becoming commonplace in some areas, it’s still an add-on in others and there needs to be greater thinking about how technology can be introduced earlier.
AI has the power to revolutionize healthcare delivery and its full potential is still yet to be grasped. AI can prevent a backlog of patients using the healthcare system unnecessarily, while fast-tracking those who need urgent treatment and freeing up doctors to spend more time with patients who have complex issues; it has the ability to solve many of the issues physicians face today.
Contributed by Piotr Orzechowski, CEO at Infermedica