As the coronavirus pandemic grips the world, our NHS is facing its biggest crisis in a generation. New technology is one of the tools being used to fight this virus - as well as many other illnesses, and the use of artificial intelligence is on the rise across the health sector.
Dr Oscar Duke is a GP at a busy practice, and like most parts of the NHS, they’re used to a crisis. In recent months our NHS staff and facilities have been pushed to their limits, and they are using everything at their disposal in their everyday work. Those tools include the very latest technology, including artificial intelligence - but what exactly is it?AI is the ability of a computer programme to act and think like a human, and it’s no longer the stuff of science fiction - it’s already here. We use it to unlock our phones, to plan travel routes, to receiving entertainment recommendations based on our viewing habits.
Earlier this year, an international team of researchers from Google Health reported on a potentially life-saving AI breakthrough. This new research found that their AI system could identify cancer in breast screening mammograms, with fewer incorrect diagnoses and fewer missed cases than radiologists. In one instance, six radiologists in the study missed a sign of breast cancer in an image while the AI picked it up accurately. On the flip side, they also had examples of radiologists picking up signs of breast cancer while the AI missed it, showing that the best case scenario doesn’t exclusively use radiologists or AI, but instead combines the two.
I don’t think these artificial intelligence systems replace radiologists, we think much more about them enabling or augmenting these experts. And so, what’s really exciting is the power of both kind of machine and human coming together, which I think is ultimately going to be more powerful than either alone.
The government is so convinced that AI can improve healthcare that it’s invested 250 million pounds to transform the prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of chronic disease by 2030. New technologies mean we have more information about our own well being than ever before - and around a third of us, like 22 year old student Jorge, are now monitoring our health with fitness trackers.
Last summer Jorge was exercising regularly and using his smart watch to monitor his runs, but it was when he was resting that his watch detected something out of the ordinary. His resting heart rate was spiking unusually high, sometimes to over 130bpm whilst laying in bed - much higher than the average resting heart rate of 60-100bpm. He originally put it down to potential simple solutions, like consuming too much caffeine or having too much sugar.
It wasn’t until Jorge went in for an operation to remove his tonsils that he brought it up after being asked, due to the spikes he had seen from his smart watch. His operation was cancelled and he was sent for an electrocardiogram to check his heart rhythm, followed by a scan.
They found that my heart was leaking quite severely, one of the valves was very narrow. And it was causing the blood to rush back into my heart rather than come out, which was causing my heart to basically expand. So over the years it was gradually getting bigger and bigger, and eventually they said if it was untreated it would have probably eventually just give up.
Jorge attributes the success of his operation not only to NHS staff but to his smart watch as well.
The doctors and nurses saved my life, my surgeon saved my life. But if it wasn't for the watch, I might not have even been in the position for them to help me.
Tech giants across the glove are racing to cash in on the potentially lucrative healthcare market that AI presents. Pictured below is Dr Oscar Duke in the University of Hertfordshire's Robot House - home to a group of next generation robots. Here, scientists explore how people interact with machines and how robots can improve the quality of life for older people.
Here, they conduct research surrounding what is possible for robots within social care, through a number of ways from helping lift heavy items and reminding people to take medication, to trying to mimic human interaction and redefine companionship. One of these robots has been dubbed the Care-O-Bot.
The Care-O-Bot is quite a general-purpose machinery. It’s able to move about, it’s able to utilise its hands. It can reach quite high shelves and it can move quite heavy objects, so it’s in the right place to be able to help in doings tasks at home.
Another robotic resident is Pepper - the world's first humanoid robot able to recognise faces and basic human emotions. As our ageing population and shortage of carers continues to grow - there’s a real desire and need for Robots to provide companionship and help in the home
There’s little doubt that AI is going to play an important role in our future health and social care, but it’s safe to say that human doctors don’t have anything to worry about just yet.
For more information, watch ‘Can Robots Save the NHS?’, on ITV this Thursday 27th August at 7:30pm.