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Is AI the Cure for Healthcare?

Volume 2, 2017

By Janine Coughlin

The precise nature of artificial intelligence has the potential to fundamentally reshape healthcare, particularly in developing countries such as China where demand far outstrips resources and quality of care is uneven.

Numerous bottlenecks in healthcare delivery and quality can be solved with artificial intelligence (AI) says Director of CEIBS Centre for Healthcare Management and Policy and Adjunct Professor of Economics John Cai. “Informational data is a fundamentally important issue in healthcare because of the information asymmetry between the supply side and the demand side,” he says. “Reducing information asymmetry would improve the quality of care.”

In China, healthcare delivery suffers from what Prof Cai describes as an inverse pyramid, in which the greatest need for services is in poor, rural areas that have the least resources. The big data analysis that AI makes possible can help alleviate this problem in a variety of ways.

AI is already being used in some developed countries to analyse diagnostic medical images such as x-rays and MRIs. “Many community-level doctors don’t have much experience making a diagnosis from MRIs, they would have to send the patient to a large hospital,” says Prof Cai. “If we had these kinds of AI tools in China, they could help these doctors retain patients at the community level.”

China does have some innovative AI pilot programmes underway. Prof Cai says a notable one is being done by the Guangzhou Children and Women’s Hospital, which is using a diagnostic software programme to help both patients and doctors improve efficiency. “There could be more than 100 different causes for a child’s fever, so this tool helps ask about other possible symptoms to help narrow down the cause,” he explains, noting that some may not be that serious. “Parents become very anxious if their child has a fever. Especially in China, they don’t trust the primary or community care, they would just bring their children directly to the specialty hospital or the teaching hospital, where there are long lines of patients waiting to see a doctor.”

Prof Cai says that the big data collection and analysis that AI enables can also help improve the quality of healthcare. He shares an example from the US, where in 1999 an influential study found that preventable deaths in hospitals there had risen from 44,000 to close to about 98,000 per year. “This number is more than the total number of deaths caused by motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer and AIDS,” he says. The report prompted the US government to enact laws and regulations to improve the quality of care offered by hospitals and healthcare providers.

Data analysis can also be used to help utilise healthcare resources more efficiently. Prof Cai says that compared to other countries, currently only a small percentage of China’s GDP is spent on healthcare, yet it could be spent more effectively. “We have a lot of overuse of drugs and tests,” he says. “Some places have started to contract with IT companies to monitor physician and hospital behaviours, and this has shown a very high percentage of health insurance monies have been spent on things that should not have been done, that were not appropriate. They said almost half the money spent was not necessary.” 

Though China’s healthcare system currently lacks the ability to collect and analyse data on a large scale, once these systems are put in place it could usher in some dramatic improvements. “Once we have data it will wake up healthcare providers, physicians, patients and the government to improve healthcare quality,” Prof Cai says. “If we track diseases and know where they are concentrated, and in what kinds of patients, this can help the government to reallocate the resources to better meet people’s needs. It can also help businesses in the sector know more precisely in which region and which types of diseases to invest more resources.”