Providing empathetic healthcare has never been more important. The COVID-19 pandemic has heaped more stress on an already overburdened healthcare workforce, and a sad consequence of that stress is a reduction in healthcare’s human touch. The serious shortage of people to care for the sick and mitigate the potentially cold care environment is exacerbated by a surge in demand, diminishing healthcare workers’ ability to spend time with their patients and eroding healthcare’s human face.

As mentioned in Accenture’s recent Asia-Pacific report: “Public Health Strategies for Responding to Pandemics”, primary care givers are vital when triaging and treating patients, as gatekeepers to more specialized and limited diagnostics and treatments. The report highlights that technology, like AI-powered virtual agents, can alleviate capacity constraints in telehealth services. While this may appear, superficially, to reduce the amount of human contact with patients, virtualization of the primary care network can actually extend care to more people and help ensure that the human touch is more present at the patient’s side when it really counts.

Artificial intelligence's radically healthcare human role

What’ is Artificial Intelligence’s (AI) most important healthcare function during a pandemic? Accenture’s Future Systems survey refers to systems that are radically human—that break down barriers and adapt to humans, rather than the other way around. Either humans enable machines (by training AI, for example) or machines augment humans (by suggesting the next best action or providing real time insights), that could contribute to both the effectiveness of care, and its humanity.

Traditional definitions of AI focus almost exclusively on replacing humans with machines. It’s time to pivot our view of what AI should achieve—especially in healthcare and even more in times of crisis. I believe AI’s most important function, right now, is to enhance healthcare workers’ personal presence in patient care by enabling humans and machines to work side by side. It’s about augmenting healthcare workers so that they can look after people. University of Maryland computer scientist Ben Shneiderman elaborates on my view in his article: “Robots should collaborate with humans…rather than replace them”.

The effects of insufficient human contact on everyone from babies to older people are well documented, and the clinical environment can be intimidating and cold. This reality needs to be mitigated by human contact.

Augmenting healthcare workers’ humanity, not just their ability

Consider that the tasks typically performed well by machines are not the tasks that enhance the human face of care in any case. Yes—machines are approximating physical and even some emotional human features to a greater extent, but their greatest strengths still lie in the ability to apply massive processing power to vast quantities of data at high speed. Expecting healthcare workers to perform this kind of work would erode their time with the sick, not enhance it.

Augmenting humans with artificial intelligence means humans can work smarter. They can focus on patients and also work through ethical dilemmas more thoroughly. A nurse trying to triage at speed under pressure can spend slightly more time on human interaction if pathology reports and medical records are being accessed by a machine. A doctor trying to diagnose and treat is likely to be more present during a consultation if patient records are being examined by an AI which makes initial recommendations based on patient history and underlying conditions, combined with current symptoms.

It’s not about every interface, it’s also about a more humane healthcare experience

Even where machines do replace humans at the patient interface (using virtual chatbots to enhance call centers, for example) the focus should remain on enhancing the patient’s experience of being cared for. In many cases faster access to a virtual agent probably gives patients a better care experience than delayed access to a human call center agent.

In other instances, robots might act as an initial interface to receive, triage and route patients to appropriate clinicians so that the human face of care is present where it really counts. Machines can also provide preliminary diagnoses, ongoing education to facilitate early intervention, ongoing patient management, monitoring and daily care.

In these cases, it might superficially appear that the goal is to replace human care. The truth is that in a care environment that lacks sufficient human skills at the best of times, there is effectively competition for those skills among various types and levels of care. The net result of using AI at the lower levels (where interactions also tend to be short and temporary) is to maximize the time spent focusing on more acute ongoing care needs.

In Singapore, many COVID-19 patients have been cared for remotely—yet another example of how AI has been employed to improve the quality of the care experience. The ability to remain in the comfort of one’s own home makes the process far more bearable for the patient and avoids unnecessarily prolonged exposure to both the colder hospital environment and the virus itself. For example, Singapore’s coronavirus symptom checker app allows citizens to do initial symptomatic checks from the comfort of their home. This helps to ease the pressure on the healthcare system also. The use of artificial intelligence facilitates more regular interaction with the healthcare system from the patient’s perspective and gives a greater sense of ongoing awareness of their needs.

Healthcare workers—from technicians through nurses and doctors—are scarce and precious resources. From a patient’s perspective, it’s vital to reduce stress on those workers and allow workers to be present not only to a greater extent, but at the times and places where their presence has the greatest impact on care experiences and outcomes.

Feel free to reach out to me if you would like to share your views on AI’s evolving role in the care setting.

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Hans Avinder

Manager – Accenture Management Consulting, Asia Pacific

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