Think about healthcare as it was in your grandparents’ day and consider how much it has changed.

Doctors made house calls, we relied on home remedies, and hospitals were only for the most serious cases. But your grandparents are having the last laugh – medicine is coming full circle.

Within two years, artificial intelligence (AI) and other smart technology will be bringing healthcare back into the home, relieving our overstretched hospitals and empowering everyone to manage their own health.

Soon it will be possible to check in with a chatbot before visiting the doctor and receive your lab results and coaching as they come in. AI and machine learning tools have the ability to improve survival rates and wellness across the globe. Nearly 160 Asia Pacific healthcare organisations (including some in New Zealand) recently surveyed reported improvements of between 14 per cent to 21 per cent in patient outcomes and disease prevention since introducing AI and related tools, as well as reduced costs, better patient experiences and improved co-ordination between providers to reduce errors and enable better treatment plans.[1] By 2030 the surveyed organisations expected at least 30 per cent further improvements, particularly in integrated care coordination.

But it’s not just about being efficient; it’s about helping everyone live healthier lives. The global trend is towards home-based healthy living. With AI, hospital-based care is expected to reduce over time, helping people feel more in control of their own wellbeing and taking the pressure off our struggling hospitals and carers. At last month’s Microsoft Future Now AI conference in Auckland, we spoke to healthcare sector leaders about helping Kiwis improve their wellbeing through AI.

One of our goals is creating technologies that speak ‘human’, so every human can speak with computers. Chatbots can assist in triage, allowing hospital patients to be assessed so medical staff can focus on treatment, or help reduce doctors’ visits for simple issues by giving advice in the home. AI and connected devices can also learn to spot danger signals, predicting health events like strokes or diabetic shock by monitoring subtle changes in people’s bodies before they themselves might be aware. Correctly predicting such events can help prevent them occurring, ensuring people get the right treatment in time.

Another of our initiatives aims to boost collaboration and sharing of health data worldwide to develop better solutions and innovations that could benefit us all. Every healthcare provider and policymaker needs to be thinking less about optimising operational processes and more about transforming their entire organisations from the ground up.

The huge benefit of AI is its ability to analyse large amounts of health data, and at a much faster pace than humans could manage. One of our successful partners is India’s Apollo Hospitals. Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in India, but treatment has been hampered by lack of technology and equipment. Using AI and machine learning, Apollo Hospitals is able to analyse patients’ cardiovascular records and compare them with the rest of the local population, allowing them to produce health risk scores specific to India. This has proved twice as accurate as existing models that use data from foreign countries with a different set of measurable factors. Doctors at Apollo Hospitals can now more accurately predict potential coronary ailments in the next 10 to 20 years and put strategies in place to improve health at a community-wide level instead of merely treating individual patients.

We should also celebrate Kiwi breast-imaging leader Volpara, which presented at the conference on its smart technology that’s already helping New Zealand breast-screening staff take better mammograms by evaluating their performance. This not only helps detect cancers sooner, it also means that many of the women who are recalled after their appointments because of blurry or inadequate images will no longer have to go through the uncertainty and stress of getting a recall notice and repeating the process. Volpara has now assessed more than one million mammograms worldwide, enabling it to help conduct global research into breast cancer.

The iMOKO app is another Kiwi success story, enabling schools and kohanga reo in underprivileged communities to diagnose students’ health issues quickly without requiring parents to make expensive doctors’ visits. Machine learning helps provide an accurate diagnosis backed up by a team of skilled staff, picking up untreated conditions like head lice and strep throat before they can become serious.

Perhaps the old adage needs updating: ‘An app a day keeps the doctor away’. Far from being about clinical data, AI in healthcare is set to find new ways to improve our wellbeing at reduced cost, help under-resourced medical staff and organisations through at-home technology and speed up new cures and treatments through greater collaboration and machine learning. Those days will be here before you know it.

Author: Gabe Rijpma is the Christchurch-based Senior Director Health and Social Services for Microsoft Asia.

[1] IDC and Microsoft – Unlocking the Economic Impact of Digital Transformation in Asia Pacific, 2018

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