The development of artificial intelligence and access to more advanced data have boosted healthcare research, diagnosis, and treatment. On mobile, AI algorithms and sensor technology are transforming smartphones into full health-management platforms.
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The evolution of mHealth and digital health assistants can drive the next revolution in healthcare, improving availability of healthcare services, increasing efficiency in the treatment process, reducing costs, and creating unprecedented opportunities for preventive care. Soon the devices in our pockets will be an integral part of living a healthier life.
Your Chatbot Will See You Now
At the heart of the mHealth revolution are AI-powered health assistants; some are found in standalone apps while others exist as chatbots inside popular messenger apps.
Users chat with these agents as they would with a doctor, relaying symptoms like a headache or stomach trouble. And as a doctor would, the agent asks follow-up questions—maybe about other probable symptoms the patient may have overlooked—and gives users a personalized assessment of their health conditions as well as recommendations on what steps they should take.
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These assistants transform mHealth apps from a static source of information into smart platforms that offer flexible and friendly interactions.
Ada, for example, uses conversational chatbots to help patients find the causes of their symptoms. Behind Ada's functionality is a proprietary probabilistic-reasoning engine that taps into an extensive medical knowledge base covering many thousands of conditions, symptoms, and findings. Ada uses this engine to analyze patient-related data—past medical history, symptoms, risk factors, and more—and uses machine learning algorithms to better understand the patient's conditions and provide a more accurate assessment.
Your.MD uses AI algorithms to help patients figure out the reasons for their symptoms. The assistant is available as an independent app or as an add-on to platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Skype, and Telegram. The company's goal is to put "pre-primary care in the hands of everyone with a mobile phone," Your.MD CEO Matteo Berlucchi tells PCMag.
To that end, Your.MD has made its platform available on Free Basics, the Facebook-led initiative to provide free internet in underserved areas. "For those in particularly rural communities, the service can boost the knowledge of nurses and community care providers to better serve people in need of accurate and trusted medical assistance," Berlucchi says.
A host of similar platforms have emerged over the past years, including Baidu's Melody and Babylon Health, a UK-based health startup. There are also more specialized apps, such as AiCure, a mobile app that uses AI and image analysis to control patient medication consumption, and Flo, an AI-powered period and ovulation tracker app; it uses machine learning algorithms and neural networks to increase the accuracy of predicting menstruation and ovulation cycles, which could help transform women's lives and personal health care.
Making Healthcare More Accessible
In 2015, the World Health Organization and World Bank reported that more than 400 million people across the world lack access to basic healthcare services. A separate WHO study forecasted a shortage of 12.9 million healthcare workers in the coming decade, a problem that is sure to deepen as the planet's population steadily increases.
"One of the biggest challenges patients face in these areas is simply access to doctors and practitioners," says Morris Panner, CEO of Ambra Health, a medical data and image management cloud software company. "By outsourcing tasks that a machine can do better, such as scanning images for potential signs of irregularities, doctors with limited resources and time will be able to see and treat more people."
While AI is the force that makes healthcare software more efficient, the main contributing factor to making it more accessible is the growth of mobile computing and internet connectivity.
"With the growing market penetration of mobile devices, and the global number of mobile users estimated to reach 6.1 billion by 2020, there's an increasing opportunity for AI and mHealth applications to facilitate new access to healthcare services in countries where care is limited," says Dr. Claire Novorol, co-founder and chief medical officer at Ada. "By breaking physical barriers and improving inefficiencies, AI and mHealth capabilities have the ability to drive more universal cross-sharing of resources and better access to care."
Everyone Needs a Little AI Love
The main benefit of automated, AI-powered health assistants is their ability to serve millions of people at the same time, a perk that extends beyond underserved regions.
"Even in countries with more comprehensive healthcare systems, increased resource-strain along with the growing complexity of medicine can lead to incomplete information gathering, misdiagnosis, and little consultation time left for developing the human rapport that is an essential part of delivering effective care," Dr. Novorol says.
Your.MD's Berlucchi believes mHealth assistants will become a popular alternative in developed countries, where the average wait time for doctors is 18.5 days, and busy lifestyles and demanding jobs make it difficult to see a doctor when needed.
Recent studies show that health apps continue to garner greater trust among users as the apps become smarter and more efficient. Aside from improved health, personalized health apps result in an overall reduction in healthcare spending, which is one of the largest cost items in every country. "The high costs could be dramatically reduced if every unnecessary, untimely, or wrong decision was taken out of the system," Berlucchi says.
For instance, a 2011 report by the UK's National Health service found that 57 million general practitioner (GP) consultations every year involve minor ailments that could be handled through self-care. Smart self-care can also help reduce the losses incurred by millions of yearly missed appointments.
Berlucchi says, "For insurance companies, it can enable them to accurately assess the best course of action for their policy holders (knee surgery or physiotherapy, for example), thus reducing their overall expenditure and eventually the premiums they charge companies or private individuals."
Step Away From Google
With the wealth of information available on the web, people often resort to doing their own research about their health conditions. Every year, Google and other search engines see billions of symptom-related queries. However, search engines don't "think" like doctors; they don't understand the context and situation of the patient's health. Neither can they conduct "medical triage," the process of asking follow-up questions, assessing severity of symptoms, and offering personalized information. Therefore, the results they present often confuse or further harm rather than help patients.
"The main problems with self-diagnosis and online search-based healthcare is the sheer deluge of information and the inability to sort what's relevant and differentiate between credible medical information and what's not," Ada's Dr. Novorol says.
"The web only provides access to content semantically related to a person's symptoms. There's no account of the person's health record or circumstances," adds Ron Gutman, CEO of HealthTap, a digital health firm that helps connects patients and doctors across the world.
In contrast, mHealth assistants employ actual medical information and focus on drilling down to the root cause of each individual's symptoms to reach clearer, more actionable information and solutions. HealthTap plans to address the situation with Dr. A.I., a virtual triage mobile app powered by artificial intelligence that patients can access through video, text, or voice. Dr. A.I. incorporates the patient's personal information and level of medical background to investigate symptoms and offer personalized, doctor-recommended courses of action.
"Advanced AI assistants have the potential to solve some of the problems posed by online search-based diagnosis, by providing a step-by-step approach for users, and offering relevant medical information that is validated by medical sources and professionals," Dr. Norovol says.
AI assistants can help fill the online search gap and provide a safer, more transparent, and reliable alternative. "What we're starting to see is the evolution of AI assistants from a more simple chatbot flow to the type of conversation you'd have with a good doctor, asking detailed questions and reaching relevant conclusions—and validated against real world cases and medical libraries covering thousands of conditions and symptoms, and training from medical professionals," Dr. Norovol says.
AI Will Not Replace Your Doctor (Yet)
Artificial intelligence advances often lead to talk of mass unemployment. But the developers of mHealth assistants don't think doctors and nurses should be afraid of losing their jobs to AI just yet.
"Doctors and nurses still have a number of unique and important advantages on AI and mHealth assistants," Your.MD's Berlucchi says. "They have empathy; they can look at you, assess you in the flesh, listen to your breathing, look into your ears, take a blood test. All of these diagnostic aids are currently not available to pre-primary care or assisted self-care tools. In that sense, doctors and nurses have at their disposal a much wider range of data points they can use to assess you."
In fact, many of these platforms point out when patients need to see a physician and specialist and will provide the means to contact one. Your.MD's OneStop Health enables users to find relevant and trustworthy public and private health services and products to help them get better faster. Ada and Babylon Health also provide on-demand access to qualified doctors via their apps. Ada pre-briefs the doctor with the information provided through the "smart" symptom assessment.
But what's undeniable is that the advent and evolution of AI healthcare assistant will transform the doctor-patient relationship for the better.
"Technology will allow the patient to be much more in the driver's seat, taking more responsibility and ownership of their data and their health, a lot of it even from home, which will free up doctors' time to focus on what matters most—human empathy, prevention, and treatment of chronic conditions and diseases," Dr. Norovol says. "Healthcare has the potential to shift from reactive care to more personalised health focused on prevention and wellness."
HealthTap's Ron Gutman says the data AI assistants collect can help optimize communications between healthcare workers and patients. "Patient progress can be shared with extended members of the patient's care team through integration with electronic medical records," Gutman says. "This helps healthcare workers spend less time on redundant communications tasks and more time on delivering compassionate care."
"Just as automation has occurred in many industries from manufacturing to farming, we'll see a similar transformation in healthcare," Panner, the CEO from Ambra Health, says. "It will enable humans to perform higher-value emotional and judgment-driven tasks, which is ultimately what humans are uniquely good at."
Will artificial intelligence eventually replace your doctor? We really can't answer that question until general or human-level AI becomes a reality. But Dr. Norovol predicts that "the practice of medicine will become something that much more closely resembles a data science, meaning that straightforward and tedious tasks (like taking patient information, filling out reports, etc.), will continue to be automated, and doctors will become much more like data scientists, needing to be able to interpret that data and translate that into improved patient outcomes."
This story originally appeared in the PCMag Digital Edition.