Richard Coe, Kajima Partnerships, shared the following insight on the role of emerging technologies in healthcare…
The current healthcare industry is facing an unprecedented level of demand, and the NHS in particular is taking the brunt of the burden. From 2006 to 2019, the total UK population rose by about 1% per year, yet the proportion of those aged 85 or over has risen more rapidly. Data from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) show treating an 80-year-old is, on average, almost four times as expensive as treating a 30-year-old. This escalating demand from long-term, chronic disease, rising costs and limited resources, not just financially but also the desperately stretched workforce, is arguably one of the most significant challenges the NHS has come against.
In a view recently pushed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, investing in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will be one of the elements to unlocking the financial savings and lessening the burden on the NHS. The past decade has seen a proliferation in the abundance of health data that is now available, yet most of it has not been structured into a way that we can use. With such valuable data at our hands, the healthcare sector should be looking to capitalise on maximising its value and extract learnings – something that can be made possible with the likes of AI.
The next decade is moving towards harnessing digital technology, a move which no doubt will positively transform public health and the NHS. The emergence and increasing use of AI and robotics has shown significant potential in healthcare; from enhancing accuracy and precision of tasks and diagnosis, to improving independence, rehabilitation and supporting mental health. It comes as no surprise that this new era of technology will be crucial in helping the NHS survive – by creating a revolutionary healthcare environment that delivers intelligent medical solutions for both evidence- and outcome-based health, focusing on collaborative, preventative care.
Enhancing accuracy and precision
One in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and an alarming number of cases are being diagnosed late or even suffer a misdiagnosis. The introduction of AI is already being used to detect such diseases, like cancer, more accurately and in their early stages. For example, according to the American Cancer Society, 12.1 million mammograms are performed annually in the US, but a high proportion of these mammograms yield false results, leading to one in two healthy women being told they have cancer. The use of AI is enabling review and translation of cancer screenings at least 10 times faster with significantly greater accuracy, reducing the need for unnecessary biopsies and enabling earlier, successful intervention and treatment.
Decision making is an essential element to healthcare, particularly when it comes clinical surgery, and although they have been used in medicine for more than 30 years, robots have been developed to perform a wide range of tasks and functions.
They range from simple laboratory robots to highly complex surgical robots that can either aid a human surgeon or execute operations by themselves. The increased decision-making and precision with robotic-surgery can help eliminate human error, and assist an ever-increasing stretched workforce.
Patient monitoring and rehabilitation
In addition to surgery, robots have great capacity to be used in hospitals and labs for repetitive tasks, in rehabilitation, physical therapy and in support of those with long-term condition. Nursing-care robots, such as RoBear, are able to lift and move patients in and out of bed into a wheelchair, help those who need assistance to stand, and even turn patients in bed to prevent bedsores. Other medical treatments can include augmented reality rehabilitation software that works alongside specialised training equipment, helping to assist visual and motor-skill training after strokes.
Around the clock monitoring, although often necessary, can be a greatly inefficient use of NHS staff time. Robots with inbuilt sensor software are better able to monitor patient activity in the hospital beds, and even remotely in their homes, identifying when they have fallen and help alert staff or carers to falls or health emergencies. Such technology can help nurses, carers and residents track health-related measurements, and stay in touch, without the need for constant assessment.
The explosion of technology, including the digitally enabled, wireless connectivity across devices, has created an increasing democratisation of access for healthcare. Some of the most powerful AI tools are already embedded in mobile devices. Harnessing this technology can provide individuals with the data and information they need to proactively and independently manage their own health and wellness. Providing people with the right tools to manage their own illnesses and help take preventative measures will lower the strain on the public purse.
In addition, technology capabilities such as medical AI, that allow health issues to be treated at home for longer through the likes of virtual nursing, means problems can be treated before they become acute. The wide adoption of remote patient assistance programmes can at least partially solve the problem of nursing shortage for understaffed hospitals and help reduce pressure on inpatient resources.
Supporting mental health
As an ageing population, we are living longer lives – a phase of our lives that is often associated with loneliness and mental health decline. Service robots can perform interactive human functions and engage in “conversation” which can help make sick or elderly patients feel less lonely. AI combined with the advancements in humanoid design are enabling robots to have patient-facing roles, helping to keep ageing minds sharp and solving problems of isolation.
AI and robotic technologies have long been seen as promising areas for healthcare, and access to quality, affordable healthcare, and good health for everyone is the ultimate aim. How we embrace AI and robotics to complement and enhance our NHS over the next decade will define our ability to deliver a more responsive health service with improved health outcomes, while at the same time enabling people to take more control over their day-to-day health needs.