Can we convince patients to trust AI?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming the way healthcare is delivered and revolutionizing the future of health.

But AI is a term manacled to visions of physical robots whirring around hospital wards and taking vitals with a bedside manner of scrap metal insensitivity.  Although the public is increasingly aware and accepting that digital technology has the potential to improve healthcare provision, it is still wary of anything that appears to take care out of human hands and place it into machines and microchips.

Popular culture, from the 1929 film Metropolis through to the 2004 movie I Robot, has painted artificial intelligence as inherently unstable and on more than nodding terms with depersonalized anarchy. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mr. Weasley admonishes Ginny with the cry: “What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.”

The need for AI education

AI’s image, therefore, needs to change if it is to win the hearts and minds of the public and healthcare workers. The mission to explain AI and recalibrate understanding should be an imperative alongside technological advances.

Trust is at a worrying low point with only 54% of the general population trusting their country’s healthcare system, according to the 2017 Future Health Index research just published by Philips. And it is clear that the vast majority want care to continue to have the human touch with only 11% prepared to consult a hologram doctor and 10% agreeable to accept robot healthcare professionals [1].

But – and this is where the mission to educate needs to accelerate – the use of patient data, advanced diagnostic techniques, and devices that allow care in the home, can revolutionize outcomes for patients and save money for systems struggling with an aging, and more demanding, populations.

The key is to move away from the term AI and champion machine learning – the capability of computers to store, process and make connections faster than the human brain – as a natural partner of the human element of healthcare.

The fact that a computer system has the ability to interrogate medical records, case histories, regulatory guidelines and scientific developments and provide the same clinical judgment as eminent physicians should be welcomed rather than feared. Algorithms and digital innovations have a place alongside the white coat and the stethoscope.

The public is keen to embrace technology – the speed of uptake of lifestyle wearables has been phenomenal and the market reached an estimated value of $28.7 billion in 2016 with the number of smart phone users expected to rise to 6.1 billion globally in 2020 – all are powered by or harness AI.

Healthcare is different to lifestyle as it carries the weight of history but the barriers to accepting technology as a daily part of the patient-physician pathway should not be insurmountable.

The power of change

The benefits from man and machine working in harmony are evident. Trials have already shown that patients can use technology to monitor conditions, ranging from dementia to heart and respiratory diseases, at home to give clinicians accurate, live information to review cases remotely so that hospital admissions can be for specific rather than routine appointments that can be a waste of time for both patient and physician.

Dr. Ali Parsa, the pioneering health specialist behind Babylon, the app-based doctor appointment and symptom checker system, says: “Using AI will free up doctors and nurses’ time. One in eight of NHS diagnoses is wrong. It is not that the doctors are bad, it is just that it is mathematically impossible to configure all these in your head.

“Simple stuff will be done much better by machines but then humans will be able to do the treatment – the surgery, the care – more effectively and with more time for empathy.”

Data protection and compliance specialist Dr. Reemt Matthiesen, of CMS, a top-ten international law firm, believes EU regulations are strong and that systems operating in Israel and Denmark – based on transparency and openness – prove that anonymized patient data can be used effectively and safely for research to improve treatment methods. “I believe this is a learning curve. Once people “see”/trust that these systems prove beneficial and that their data is used solely for beneficial purposes and not commercialized, skepticism will disappear,” he says. “That means a sound and reasonable legal regime with permission management where people are in easy control of who has access to their data and for which purposes.”

Entrepreneurial spirit shows the way

We all want to connect with a doctor faster and access care when we need it but, with the global population rising, life expectancy growing and more sedentary lifestyles spreading, healthcare systems are clogged.

The good news is that hospitals and community care systems are using technology daily to streamline performance and enhance clinical care and that precision diagnostic tools and remote monitoring now mean that conditions can be addressed swiftly and efficiently.

The entrepreneurial and creative spirit pulsing through healthcare is further cause of optimism as start-ups and established global firms quest for innovations will turn the tide away from patients washing up in over-stretched hospitals and doctor surgeries.

The big task is to accelerate public understanding alongside technology so that artificial intelligence is seen as a savior rather than a spectre and remember that machine learning is nothing without human intelligence.

  1. Future Health Index - Key findings, https://www.futurehealthindex.com/report/2017/chapter/1138/key-findings/?lang=en, (2017)

Danny Buckland

About the author

Danny Buckland

Danny Buckland is an award-winning health journalist who writes and broadcasts on healthcare technology, current affairs and features. He has worked for major national newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and The Times, and magazines for more than 25 years.


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