The Future of Health Care in a World of Artificial Intelligence And Robotics

Technology’s increasing pervasiveness has touched nearly every corner of our lives, not the least of which is health and health care. The evolution of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics have already begun to shape the future of health care delivery, and will have an undeniable impact on patient experiences over the next 20 years.

On the final day of the inaugural Sciana network meeting, health leaders from three different countries – Germany, Switzerland and the UK – debated how AI and robotics specifically will change the way treatment and care is delivered in hospitals around the world thanks to insights from Tim Wilson, who leads the Middle East health industries team at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

AI is already the fastest growing health investment area, with researchers and clinicians looking to the technology to aid in training, research, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, and even end of life care. Health care systems around the world, notably the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), have already employed the use of AI health assistant programs to optimize the clinical process, using apps and online programs to give patients information about their symptoms and even facilitate meetings with clinicians.

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But this move to tech-based solutions also means an exponential increase in the amount of sensitive patient data that is collected, prompting some members to raise concerns about the security of electronic medical records, especially in a world where hacking is so prevalent.

Sciana members also engaged in debate over the role of robotics in health care, specifically when faced with the question of whether or not they would allow a robot to perform a major or invasive procedure instead of a doctor.

One member argued that robots present disadvantages because, unlike surgeons, they are not able to change surgical course should the patients’ condition change, or an alternative procedure be better suited. Others expressed concern that robotization may lead to an increase in unnecessary interventions, or take focus away from patient expectations.

Wilson, who led the discussion, notes that these fears are a matter of technological development.

“It may be sometime before an AI robot can anticipate, or respond to, all eventualities (the unexpected anatomy, pathology etc.),” he says. “But when that time comes, which it surely will, the robot will not be tired, will not have a tremor, will not be subject to the usual four percent error rate that Professor James Reason found time and again into his research into human error, and will have access to the latest evidence on how to handle the unexpected anatomy or pathology (which even the most experienced surgeons do not always have).”

Though robotics technology, and the role it will have in health and health care, is still evolving, research shows there is a growing enthusiasm among consumers to engage with new technologies for their health care needs. But it seems those in developed economies with entrenched health care systems show some reluctance to embrace AI and robotics compared those in emerging economies with mixed health care coverage.

For example, research highlighted during the session found that 94 percent of Nigerians said they were willing to engage with AI or robotics for their health care needs, compared to 39 percent of those in the UK. Similarly, 69 percent of Nigerians surveyed would be willing to have a robot perform major surgery, compared to 27 percent in the UK.

But, as a handful of Sciana members pointed out, tech adoption takes time. Today, many people accept we will be sharing the road with driverless cars five years from now; whereas five years ago, few thought it likely.

The role of AI and robotics in health and health care will become more clear as these technologies develop further, just as the roles of nurses, clinicians and surgeons will adapt to embrace them.

“Interestingly, we know that voice technology is at the point where it can appear as empathetic as a human – and robots to support housebound individuals appear very successful,” says Wilson.

“But we cannot underestimate the physiological impact of skin on skin contact, nor the fact we are social animals. So, from the human touch perspective, there must be some continued uncertainty about the limits of AI and robotics in healthcare.”