Author: Yewon Kim, Graphics: Osayd Asif Bashir
The BRB Bottomline:
The integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the healthcare industry has allowed faster, higher-quality treatment for patients. By saving the time of healthcare professionals and pharmaceutical companies, AI plays a critical role in fostering advancements in the healthcare industry.
The global market for AI in healthcare was valued at $10.54 billion in 2021 and is projected to grow to $64.10 billion by 2029. The reasons for the immense projected growth of AI in healthcare have become clear when considering the potential benefits it has to reshape the industry and how it operates. The integration of AI with conventional aspects of healthcare via technologies, including wearables, imaging, physiological monitoring, and virtual health assistance, can enhance the accessibility and quality of a patient’s treatment. The increase in healthcare accessibility brought about by new applications of AI could not only solve existing issues, such as the shortage of healthcare workers, but also drive further innovation within pharmaceutical companies that offer even more benefits to patients — benefits previously thought to be impossible to achieve.
The “Care” in Healthcare
Due to advancements in medicine, individuals now have a longer lifespan compared to those of previous generations. As a result of these advancements as well as other factors, the proportion of elderly in the world population has increased considerably over the years. This demographic shift has created an increased strain on the global healthcare network — when individuals reach retirement age, they will continue to need healthcare services for a significant number of years going forward. Thus, demand for medical resources, especially medical specialists, has risen, driving the current shortage of healthcare workers available to fulfill these needs. The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) predicts that there will be a shortage of 122,000 physicians, brought along by a 48% increase in the population of individuals over the age of 65 by 2032.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the shortage of healthcare workers as healthcare systems across the world struggled to manage the crisis. The subsequent burnout faced by healthcare workers while fighting the pandemic on the front lines further increased the number of job vacancies in hospitals. This shortage of staff resulted in hospitals increasing wages to maintain numbers, which in turn caused financial struggles due to high labor costs. Hospitals were unable to find an efficient solution to all their issues as each approach led to further problems that they then scrambled to patch up.
1,650+ Million More Hours
The introduction of AI into the healthcare industry could alleviate the problems stemming from this shortage of healthcare workers. AI in healthcare has the potential to free up 1,659 million to 1,944 million hours annually by leveraging applications such as imaging, wearables, virtual health assistance, and robotics.
Imaging, for example, is the process of capturing medical images of the body’s interior using X-rays, ultrasounds, CTs, and MRIs. Radiologists who perform imaging can be assisted by using AI to analyze medical images. Trained on vast datasets and algorithms, AIs would increase both the speed and reliability of the analysis. The total time saved resulting from this application of AI technology would allow healthcare professionals to not only see more patients, but also commit more time to complex medical activities such as surgery.
A prime example of AI’s applications in imaging comes from Google DeepMind, a company leading the global market for AI healthcare with a revenue of $1.13 billion in 2020. Google DeepMind, among other things, has applied machine learning to mammography screening for breast cancer detection and utilized algorithms to discern between healthy and cancerous tissues.
Another example is Sensely, a platform that is adopting Virtual Primary Care (VPC) into healthcare. Sensely’s product consists of a voice-enabled and character-enabled virtual assistant that covers the preliminary steps in assessing a patient’s health without them having to physically visit a doctor. Platforms like Sensely demonstrate how AI technologies can be used to increase accessibility and lower barriers for patients to receive primary care.
Virtual health assistance like Sensely and Electronic Health Records (EHR) systems were two prominent AI tools that increased in demand during the pandemic. The demand for Electronic Health Records (EHR) systems increased in order to advance disease surveillance and contact tracing. If VPC and EHR were strongly utilized by countries, the efficiency of analyzing and diagnosing large numbers of patients with COVID-19 could have been improved drastically. The increase in demand for these AI applications during the pandemic suggests the urgent need for governments to incorporate more AI tools into existing healthcare systems. This way, countries will be able to prepare and mitigate the impacts of healthcare challenges and avoid future crises.
An AI-Powered Pharma
Applications of AI technologies in healthcare are not limited to only hospitals, but also play a pivotal role in increasing the productivity of pharmaceutical companies. The process of creating, testing, and receiving approval often takes a tediously long time — time that patients cannot afford to lose as every second means decreased odds of survival. However, the utilization of AI by pharma companies can enable faster access to medication, saving more lives.
AI can be used to cover the initial screening of a drug’s composition and apply this analysis to other biological factors to calculate the drug’s success probability. Afterward, AI can analyze the genetic information of candidates for clinical trials to select the most optimal pool of participants for testing a drug. Throughout this entire process, AI algorithms will be reviewing and organizing large collections of data, saving pharma researchers from hours of studying and sifting through information. For pharma companies, this integration of AI into drug production will increase their productivity, resulting in lower costs and higher profits. For patients, this increase in efficiency allows drugs to be more affordable and accessible, translating to more lives saved.
The recent pandemic shed light on the shortcomings of existing healthcare systems around the world as countries frantically dealt with a massive wave of doctor, nurse, and medicine shortages. In many cases, inaccessibility to proper healthcare led to a tragic loss of life that was ultimately avoidable.
The benefits of AI in healthcare emphasize the impact technology can have beyond simply boosting a company’s profits. Advances in other emerging fields — like nanotechnology, information science, and biotechnology — are often seen primarily as tools to increase the bottom line, but have the potential to accomplish so much more. The true value proposition behind technology lies in its potential to improve the lives of countless individuals, and bring about positive social impacts that transcend the numbers on a balance sheet.
- The population has experienced a growth in aging individuals, which has led to a long-term need for medical services, especially medical specialists, but faces the issue of the current shortage of healthcare workers available.
- AI in healthcare has the potential to free up millions of hours, allowing healthcare professionals to meet more patients and commit more time to complex medical activities.
- During the pandemic, the increase in demand for AI applications like VPC and EHR suggests how incorporating more AI tools in healthcare systems beforehand will prepare countries to mitigate the impacts of future healthcare challenges.
- The integration of AI in pharma companies will increase productivity, lowering the production cost, and increase revenue while making drugs more affordable and accessible to patients.