19 April 2020

Mind Over Matter – AI and Robotics in Healthcare


by Andrew Laxton

I always do my best thinking when its unplanned. Today, it came to me at precisely 7:02am while I was in the shower. My mind was doing its typical thing of wandering off in multiple directions. ‘Not a bad job of cutting your own hair last night, why did the kids think I had intentionally shaved myself a bald spot, did I tease my Dad the same way when I was their age?’ I thought to myself silently. 

Then my mind raced in another direction back to it’s HQ – my brain. And it got me thinking about the endless capabilities of this amazing organ; the constant advances that are being made in neuroscience; and how interesting a career in neurology would be.

For those who know me well, the opening of this opinion piece will not come as a surprise. I’m what you would define as a Serial Thinker. Some might suggest that I have the attention span of a gnat but I would prefer to describe myself in gentler terms as a Mind Wanderer.

So back to my brain and the gist of this post. I then started thinking about what impact longer term social distancing measures would have on the provision of normal day-to-day healthcare support considering the unbearable strain this is already having on all medical workers, not to mention those seeking diagnosis and management of other, non-Coronavirus related, illnesses. 

Clinical facilities are currently trying their best to keep interactions between potential patients and staff to a minimum, especially at a time when life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE) is in such short supply for front line care workers. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel though and the healthcare utopia model that medical scientists, technologists and engineers are racing to build involves the wider integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Now before you start conjuring up images of a robot apocalypse, that’s not what I’m talking about. However, there is every reason the autonomous robot could soon be a regular feature at any GP practice or hospital, performing duties from checking a patient’s pulse and blood pressure to reading medical records or even performing surgery.

Even if this concept is further into the future than experts predict, doctor-controlled robots are already widely in use, and the demand for less invasive, more patient-tailored procedures that they can deliver is only going to grow.

AI in healthcare, which uses complicated algorithms and software to copy human cognitive behaviour to analyse complex medical data, has also seen some significant breakthroughs. 

The Lancet Digital Health earlier this year reported that an AI algorithm developed with large-scale mammography data demonstrated better diagnostic performance in breast cancer detection compared to radiologists. 

And last year, the Medical Device Network announced IBM was trialling a machine learning and AI algorithm for the medical diagnostics field with the aim of one day helping neurologists predict the risk of Alzheimer’s disease long before it gets detected.

With the right level of government support (which means better funding), we should see radical changes to the healthcare profession that delivers more accurate and quicker diagnostics, safer less invasive surgery, shorter waiting times, reduced infections, and increased long-term survival rates for everyone. And that is the future of healthcare we should all be aiming for.

Will AI and medical robots ever completely replace our wonderful doctors and nurses? The answer is a firm and resolute ‘No’ and nor should they. But neither can the healthcare system improve operational efficiencies and patient outcomes without these transformative technologies. 

The one critical component we simply can’t do without is that beautifully weighted bedside manner that healthcare professionals deliver with such empathy, care and consideration in the most testing and traumatic of times.

So when the time comes for me to meet my maker, the last soothing words I want to hear will be from a human being, and preferably one that I love and care about – not a robot.