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July 06, 2018
AI chatbots bolster Singapore's primary healthcare
By: Julian Sham

Everyone likes to have a good chat now and again, and what’s closer to anyone’s heart than their own wellbeing? Perhaps that’s why I can see how the AI-driven chatbots, being used as a primary health- and social-care interfaces for Singaporeans, as such a great move.

Lifestyle-management and wearable devices continue to grow in popularity and deliver data to support care decisions. Singapore has also taken the next step to enable the display of that data, if uploaded, within its National Electronic Health Record. I truly believe that AI and robotics are providing the next logical step for citizens needing guidance on who to consult about their care, and how to actively manage their health.

Aging population requires proactive, not reactive, care

Significantly, Singapore’s incidence of diabetes (in its population of 5.6m) is climbing steeply. In this context, proactive management, optimised in terms of health outcomes and efficiency, is crucial. While we continue to build more hospitals, it’s clear that we cannot afford to have people going to hospital for every single treatment. With its aging population, the increasing number of cases are potentially becoming a huge burden on the health system. Technology can boost prevention by means of self-monitoring and -management, enabling augmented care to prevent chronic conditions and keeping people out of the health system as much, and for as long as possible.

That’s why, in my view, the focus on primary, ambulatory and community care—and prevention—is so important. Singaporeans are learning that positive actions, taken earlier in life, have profound effects for the quality of later life.

Technology would also have a role to play in triage, directing people to the right care, at the right time, in the right place. The use of AI-driven chatbots has the potential to enhance efficiency (decrease waste) and improve patient care (expedite care, with fewer unnecessary treatments and less harm).

In a move echoing the Accenture Digital Health Tech Vision 2017 view, that AI is the new UI (user interface), chatbots are being used to direct patients and even their relatives to the right care setting or provider—whether to a pharmacist, community nurse, or lifestyle and nutritional advisor. This technology has the potential to help citizens understand their own health, or a loved one’s, much earlier, by facilitating appropriate interventions and support.

Complement rather than replace

I feel that, rather than replacing the existing workforce, it is important to note that AI chatbots will, for now, fill a gap that’s not serviceable by human beings. It’s not about replacing doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals. It’s about identifying and getting the right people that need to see clinicians, seen. Those patients with a common cold could probably self-manage quite well, with minor input from an AI.

Another example of this complementary role is Amazon’s Alexa, being “employed” to keep an eye on active agers in their homes. They may be at risk of falling, or else episodes of falling over may be indicative of some other kind of acute episodes associated with heart or neurological conditions, which would prompt involvement by medical and social services.

These are definitely achievable and relatively risk-free goals for AI. Without succumbing to the hype around the technology, Singapore has a solid foundation upon which future, possibly more complex, AI applications might be developed. For now, though, it’s about serving a traditionally unserved environment—moving lower intensity care needs appropriately out of hospitals and into homes, care homes and local communities wherever possible.

Let me know what you think.


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