In Australia and around the world, the use of artificial intelligence to disrupt traditional industries is moving rapidly from the hypothetical to the truly impactful. AI is driving autonomous cars, stopping bank fraud in its tracks and has been drafted in to help veterans suffering from PTSD. And healthcare is no different.

The speed at which algorithms can compute vast amounts of data – analysing, and spotting trends and patterns – seemed practically unfathomable a few short years ago. Now AI is able to diagnose lung cancer and heart disease more accurately than human doctors, saving lives and money.

But to be truly effective, AI relies on large and high-quality datasets, meaning the healthcare industry is in danger of falling short. While consumers enjoy the benefits of AI in aiding their daily needs, from transport to communication and finance, providing the data AI requires in healthcare brings more uncertainty.

The Australian Government’s announcement that My Health Record would roll out nationally this year triggered yet another conversation about data sharing in Australia’s health system. While I thoroughly agree that the highest levels of security must be in place to protect sensitive patient information, the benefits of making this data available for better analysis and pro-activity drastically outweigh the concerns.

In healthcare, AI will complement, not replace

Perhaps the most important benefit is the impact on practitioner time. The pressure on any medical professional’s time is intense and shows little sign of abating. The automation of labour intensive tasks will, ultimately, offer a solution to this issue.

With AI, analysis of complex medical data will be revolutionised, allowing researchers to fast track their trial and error testing. We’re already seeing this happen on the ground. AI has been deployed to help detect some cancers in the early stages, doing so with up to 86 per cent accuracy.

AI is powering chatbots that use synthetic interactions with mental health patients so they feel as though they’re talking to a human. It’s having a transformative impact on both the patient and Australia’s increasingly burdened mental health system.

One aspect of AI which causes much hand-wringing in other professions is the impact on jobs. In healthcare, where the human touch is vital in reassuring patients, and providing context and empathy, AI will complement rather than replace.

AI systems are ideally suited to doing the hard, labour intensive work involved in many medical roles, removing the risk of human error and speeding up processes, such as the analysis of huge bulks of data, or raising red flags when something looks risky or concerning.

But the human perspective will never be overridden in addressing these red flags. While other industries worry about the impact on jobs, we should always ensure the practitioner is complemented by new tools, never replaced. In short, the machines do the grunt work and the people apply the nuance.

Personalisation no longer a vision, it’s reality

The conversation around personalisation in healthcare has spanned decades. It’s an aspect of medicine that holds huge potential but has stalled. AI can revive this.

A one size fits all approach is simply no longer feasible as the burden on the Australian healthcare system becomes apparent. As we rapidly shift to a nation troubled by long-term and chronic conditions, we need to look to new solutions to respond to these new challenges.

The roll out of the National Digital Health Strategy this year, giving each and every Australian access to their own personal record, is a good step forward. But we must take this to another level to fully benefit from this valuable information that we, healthcare providers and researchers, will have access to.

We must not simply aggregate the data then halt. We must embrace the opportunities this data offers. A short while ago, offering Australians an individualised approach to their healthcare seemed a challenge too large to overcome. With AI, it may be achievable sooner than we think.

Embrace, don’t fear

With artificial intelligence offering so much – perhaps even the potential to accelerate the advance of the healthcare industry more than anything else – those involved with the sector should remove barriers to its success and look to embrace the new technologies.

While caution is advisable to ensure safety and security, any of the quite understandable fears need to be quickly overcome to unlock its seemingly limitless potential and accrue the substantial benefits sooner rather than later.

Dr Marcus Tan is the CEO and Medical Director of Health Engine.




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