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Is Dr AI the Upcoming Go-To Healthcare Practitioner in India?

The healthcare sector in India remains one of the largest sectors in terms of employment. Its significance can be implied by its sheer role in the quality of life and social welfare in society. Yet, there are significant asymmetries in the Indian healthcare system. India has the lowest doctor to patient ratio (1:5000) among the BRICS countries and it does not meet the minimum WHO recommendations. In some specialties, the ratio is even worse consisting of 2000 oncologists for 10 Million patients. It is evident how impossible it is to bridge this gap unless there is an intervention of technology. AI or Artificial Intelligence is fundamentally changing the way how industries across sectors are growing. Similarly, AI is poised to radically change the healthcare industry if put into useful effect. World over, the delivery of primary and secondary healthcare has not changed in the past 100 years. The mode of finding, approaching and booking an appointment with a doctor is pretty much the same and the process of prescribing medicines or a treatment plan post an analyzing by the doctor also remains intact till today. In India, we have issues of both access from a point of view of consumers and the reach from a point of view of the various healthcare services.

Shortcomings of the Indian healthcare system

Any doctor’s or clinic’s reach in India is limited to a very hyperlocal nature where patients only get benefits if they are in reach of a clinic. While 80 percent of healthcare professionals serve only 28 percent of the geography, 60 – 70 percent of Primary Health Centers and OPDs are in urban India. The ratio in India’s healthcare system is absolutely skewed and is becoming more and more unequal by the day. Taking a view of the public healthcare in rural India, most policy debates tend to argue for an increase in healthcare spending to improve overall services but the attention paid to the quality of healthcare facilities is little to none. India has nearly 500 medical colleges producing 50,000 students to meet the demands of the year 2030. We need to double our medical colleges but setting up physical infrastructure facilities like primary healthcare centers and more colleges is not scalable and economical for India.

The Indian healthcare system is plagued with the rising number of patients with non-communicable diseases requiring long-term specialist treatments. While the prevalence of ischemic heart disease and stroke has increased by over 50 percent from 1990 to 2016 in India, the number of persons with diabetes has jumped to 65 million in 2016 from 26 million in 1990. This is where mobile first and on-demand healthcare platforms which use AI, meaning computer programs that can-do things that we think of as humans can be utilized. Scientists have been using AI to automate complex tasks and it has also been used in the development of new drugs. More importantly, scientists have begun training computers to provide better healthcare.

AI for diagnosis

Babylon Health, a British start-up of virtual consultations with doctors and healthcare professionals, claimed in mid-year 2018 that its AI won over human doctors handily. Since India faces a severe lack of doctors and will be short of more than 1 million doctors by 2030, it is impossible to bridge this gap by scaling physical infrastructures. Such mobile medical consultation services which use artificial intelligence software in tests can assess common conditions more accurately than human doctors. This can bring out significantly impacted outcomes in lesser time and can reach areas which are otherwise not easily accessible.

Ajit Narayanan, CTO, mfine says, “India has a serious dearth of doctors. The ratio of medical professionals in our country is completely skewed as they are able to serve only 28 percent of the geography while we are continuously adding more lifestyle diseases because of rapid urbanization. The issue is present world over but it is even more drastic in India. This cannot be solved in the traditional way but with technology and no other solution to double the number of doctors and deal with the access and reach problem. What one needs is an access to a mobile device and internet to reach a doctor virtually at ease.”

An AI-based healthcare start-up, mfine has built a virtual doctor with an ability to diagnose and triage over 1000 common diseases and which is continuously learning. It offers General Practice by part machines and part doctors who treat patients with minor or chronic illnesses and refers those with serious conditions to a hospital. Through its virtual doctors and artificial intelligence software, mfine has taken up the goal of providing a doctor to every Indian, also in remote areas. With such services, the consumers can experience instant quality care with video consults, smart prescriptions, medication reminders, health records, and long-term care programs.

A conundrum for human doctors

It might sound like we are not too far from the creation of full-fledged AI doctors, however, doctors will not be made redundant any time soon by AI doctors and engineers. Ajit speaks likewise in the matter, “A machine is only assistive as it asks questions from the patients about the medical issue and prepares all the data. This data is then shared with the doctors as the best clinical summary but the end decision is always made by a doctor only. Such data cannot be compiled manually and in a matter of seconds anywhere in the world. The AI software just makes it easier for doctors to come to a conclusion by analyzing the patient’s medical history. This helps the doctor in not wasting 90 percent of his time but investing only 10 percent of his time and making good decisions.”

AI may seem to be invading the realm of highly trained professionals lately in all sectors. But it has been explicitly proved at various occasions that AI is more of a tool than a threat to skilled workers. Professionals would now be more commonly required to learn how to take benefit of the power of AI. Babylon Health’s claim of a chatbot diagnosing medical conditions as accurately as a General Practitioner also sparked a row between the AI software’s creators and the UK doctors. However, even in spite of Babylon Health’s claim of beating human doctors in a clinical exam, just last month it announced of investing £100 million from its own balance sheet into hiring five hundred scientists to push forward the use of artificial intelligence in health. So far, AI doctors are coming as that is the proposed future of healthcare. Since many ethical concerns, biased nature of data and scrutiny of medical professionals remains, it seems highly unlikely that bots will be replacing human doctors. – Business World

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