February 07, 2018
Crawl before you walk, before you run
By: Niamh McKenna

The “arrival” of artificial intelligence over the last few years as a hyped tech trend has led to no end of speculation over both the potential benefits and the potential dangers of AI. Realising realistic AI benefits in healthcare is a function of the extent to which AI can be used as an engine for realistic growth, not just a technology add-on.

Think and pay for itself

As for hype, healthcare is no exception, and we are told that algorithms will replace nurses and Doctor Pepper will be in a surgery any day now. But in my opinion, before anyone starts replacing doctors with robots, there are “mundane” functions which are most likely to precede AI-driven clinical care. Rather than worrying about the hype, healthcare organisations should look for a realistic starting point so that AI can both think and pay for itself. In doing so, it will earn the trust of clinicians and healthcare administrators – and support improved health outcomes. Instead of positioning AI as something that will get the NHS running like Usain Bolt, having NHS backend systems walking around with a comfortable gait seems more realistic. The potential benefits are anything but mundane.

While these functions require the application of some intelligence, they aren’t difficult or controversial in technical, ethical or political terms. Here are three examples I’d present (in some cases, these are intelligent automation leveraging the more narrowly defined “pure AI”):

Appointment scheduling: patients missing their appointments cost the NHS £1bn last year (the equivalent of a million more cataract operations or 250,000 hip replacements). In addition, nearly half of patients who have missed an NHS hospital appointment say their absences were due to issues with appointment letters, according to a new study. Patients also show a preference for digital interaction. If a patient needs to reschedule an appointment due to sudden unavailability, or requires an urgent appointment for something that doesn’t require the presence of a specific clinician for the sake of continuity...such matters could be solved by employing AI in combination with text messages, voice calls and online booking systems. This could be done 24x7 – so no need to wait for reception opening hours.

Operating Theatre Optimisation: An AI system might look at a scheduled procedure and ensure that the correct support personnel, equipment and consumables are available at the right time and in the right operating theatre–improving both efficiency and quality of care while reducing costs by eliminating wasted time and resources.

Finance: NHS processes millions of invoices from suppliers each year–with all the associated queries and processing. Using a chat or email bot to analyse queries and emails and answer them. This can be highly effective, for example the Accenture Intelligent Email Advisor can detect 55 languages and classify emails with over 90 percent accuracy and increased customer satisfaction.

Virtuous AI investment circle

AI does not have to be overly complex, initially, but can deliver immediate benefits. This can result in a virtuous circle of savings delivering capital for future investments. If this is done right, using modular, interoperable systems that can be scaled systematically–who knows where it could go.

Don’t go running before you can walk–but do get started. Scan your health organisation for early opportunities to derive benefits from AI–opportunities that provide a benchmark for future activities, and will help you earn the trust of administrators, clinicians and patients long before Pepper makes her appearance.

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