Shelly Kramer / February 26, 2018
Today the words “revolutionary” and “disruptive” are more than a little overused when it comes to how we describe technologies in this increasingly digitally-saturated world. One industry where these terms make total and unequivocal sense, though, is healthcare. That’s why I’ve covered topics like what doctors think about tech and patient care and what challenges are associated with healthcare and the IoT because what’s happening in this space fascinates me. Today, the focus in healthcare is on AI-and for good reason. Let’s explore how AI continues to disrupt the healthcare industry-how AI is redefining healthcare and how, and why China is at the forefront of the revolution.
AI is Redefining Healthcare
AI’s ability to amass tons of data and learn from it makes it pretty close to table stakes when it comes to streamlining business operations, creating more accurate predictive models, and even changing customer service as we know it through natural language processing and a host of other applications.
All of those benefits also apply to the healthcare industry in spades. In fact, half of hospitals reportedly plan to adopt AI within the next five years, and 35 percent plan to do so within two. AI has the potential to improve patient diagnoses, precision medicine, patient data security, clinical decision support, and more. See Figure 1 for a breakdown of AI’s greatest initial impact in healthcare, according to Healthcare IT News.
Figure 1. Source: HealthcareIT News
Are you wondering what those applications look like in real life? Consider IBM’sMedical Sieve algorithm, an AI assistant that has extensive cardiology and radiology knowledge. That fact, coupled with its cognitive computing power to analyze and draw conclusions from large sets of data, mean the application can help radiologists find problem areas on patient scans. Ultimately, it’s likely the radiologists would have technically found the problem areas, however, when AI is added to the mix, the data is processed at a much faster rate than what is possible by humans. This means that radiologists can identify problem areas more rapidly with an assist from AI and spend more time figuring out how to address abnormal results (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Source: The Medical Futurist
Of course, AI virtual assistants aren’t limited to radiology, that’s but one example of many. AI applications have been developed that can interface directly with patients, reminding them to take their medications on time or even acting as a virtual nurse for digital consultations. And, of course, we can’t forget another big-picture AI application in health care: data management. Faster, more accurate, and more secure reviews of patient data (or ePHI) is one of AI’s biggest benefits to healthcare in particular, with the ability to impact everything from how efficiently hospitals run from an operations standpoint to what care patients receive.
So, what’s China got to do with all this? A lot, actually. First of all, China is all in on technology in general and is becoming a major technology superpower. This is by design. China also has its sights firmly on AI. Beijing, in fact, has publically said its goal is to rival the U.S. to be the leader in all-things AI by 2030. When it comes to healthcare, though, China already has a leg up.
The New York Times reports more than 130 companies in China are applying AI specifically in the healthcare sector already. The effort is led by investment and tech giants Tencent and Alibaba-a fact that is important because, while many enterprises in the U.S. don’t prioritize investment in the healthcare space, those in China do. This is likely because the healthcare climate in China looks much different than that in the U.S., and improving access and quality of care is more of a priority and less of an option.
Alibaba, for instance, has introduced AI software that reads CT scans and assists doctors in making diagnosis. Tencent has created an AI early cancer detection program that is currently used in almost 100 hospitals, and it has also invested in a platform that enables patients to fill prescriptions online and even talk with doctors virtually-a big deal, especially when you compare China’s large, aging population with its relatively short supply of physicians.
All in all, it’s a healthcare situation ripe for AI intervention in a country known for making leaps in tech. You do the math.
My colleague Oliver Blanchard recently made a good point we should not forget when we talk about China and the AI in healthcare boom: 5G is on the horizon, and recent news from CES points to a robust relationship between Chinese OEMs and US tech giants. Oliver correctly says we are “at an inflection point” when it comes to seeing new AI product development in the healthcare market, and the speed and power of 5G are only contributing to that boom. (Read his full commentary here: 5G is Coming: All Eyes on China.)
The bottom line? AI’s potential to change the game for healthcare-and China’s potential (and current) role in the process-is definitely something we, along with the rest of the world, will be watching closely.
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