The healthcare industry is straining under the impact of COVID-19.
The sudden influx of patients in hospitals is exposing vulnerabilities in the current healthcare system. Some hospitals became hotspots for infection, disrupting routine healthcare procedures, while others closed their Outpatient Departments (OPDs), fearing transmission.
This dire situation ushered in a massive digital transformation of the healthcare industry to improve care quality, reduce operational costs, and save time for treatments.
Although the pandemic accelerated the transformation and saw pioneering research in medical science, healthcare advancement is a phased evolution. This article will discuss the different stages of transformation that go beyond COVID-19.
Teleconsultation gets a booster shot
Teleconsultation (or virtual consultation) with doctors became a norm in 2020 as it eliminated the need for face-to-face human interactions. It allowed physicians to attend to more patients during their downtime through virtual visits, provide rural hospitals with access to specialist care, and even connect with physicians in other countries for discussion and research.
More importantly, teleconsultation offered healthcare professionals a wider geographical reach, especially where medical resources are limited. It became the most significant advantage during the COVID-19 crisis.
The pandemic saw a steep rise in the adoption of services provided by teleconsultation startups like Practo, Teladoc Health, MeMD, doctorondemand, Kry, and accuRx. Along with consultations, some of these startups offer complete home care services for several illnesses, giving patients the advantage of remote nursing, cutting the need for hospital stays or visits. Other at-home services include blood tests and medicine delivery, saving patients the hassle of visiting labs and medical stores.
Additionally, video conferencing software, such as Google Duo, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, saw a rise in sign-ups for private consultations. Several patients suffering from non-critical illnesses resorted to telemedicine services during the pandemic to consult doctors for relevant medical advice. Countries like India, Australia, and the U.S. further encouraged teleconsultation by allowing patients to receive prescription medication through these services.
Teleconsultation minimized the overall medical costs for patients. A recent consumer survey conducted by American Well reported that 61% of those willing to embrace teleconsultation would do so for convenience and faster service. In comparison, 54% would opt for it to save money.
AI diagnosis enters the mainstream
While teleconsultation bridged the gap between doctors and patients, there was still one problem: several developing countries, like those in Africa, have one doctor for every 10,000 people.
With most doctors dedicated to COVID-19 care and a visible decrease in physicians’ availability for non-COVID medical consultations, the demand for quality healthcare is high. At a time like this, the integration of AI with medical systems can bring about a marked shift in the sector.
AI can analyze medical data quickly and produce an output that can aid doctors in the final decision. This rapid and accurate analysis is critical during crisis times, as many errors are otherwise attributed to oversights by doctors analyzing medical data in a rush. It is currently used for risk prediction, diagnosis, treatment planning, discovery and development of drugs, and the study of different diseases.
During the pandemic, AI specifically played a significant role in COVID-19 diagnosis. The initial time-consuming blood tests were replaced by doctors attempting disease diagnosis using X-rays and CT scans. The virus being new and its characteristics and indications unknown, doctors were faced with high data volumes and a shortage of time. AI helped by auto-learning from available data to make accurate predictions.
Startups and educational organizations like Qure.ai, DarwinAI, 1Qbit, and COVID SWIFT made AI-based solutions available to doctors. An example in the illustration showed the integration of COVID SWIFT’s AI-led solution with WhatsApp, enabling doctors and technicians even in remote areas to upload the X-ray images for instant and accurate predictive diagnosis. This integration allowed doctors to funnel high-risk patients and provide healthcare services to those who needed the resources most.
AI-Driven vaccine development
The rapid spread and the high mortality rates of COVID-19 in the initial stages led to a frantic sprint in drug and vaccine development.
Traditionally, drug development involves drawn-out trial and error phases, with vaccine development taking several years. The drug discovery pathway involves the thorough identification of several hundred potential candidates followed by preclinical tests on animals to determine those considered safe to test on humans.
During COVID-19, AI sped up this process significantly by narrowing down the initial potential candidates without compromising quality control. It also helped researchers understand the virus anatomy and predict the components that would trigger an immune response.
Startups specifically consider two pathways for swift vaccine development: the repurposing of existing drugs (with startups such as BenevolentAI, Innoplexus, Deargen, Cyclica at the forefront) and development of new vaccines (with Insilico Medicine, Exscientia, Iktos, and SRI International, among others, taking the lead).
Top pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, GSK, and Sanofi partnered with these startups to hasten vaccine development for this pandemic, considered to be one of the fastest feats in medical history.
AI in Healthcare: Beyond the Pandemic
COVID-19 helped expose healthcare gaps as they exist today, paving a clear path for a complete digital transformation. While AI has shown its potential in diagnosing and treating the new disease, it has also helped governments in contact-tracing and creating containment zones to prevent further transmission.
The emerging technology is also poised to make a significant impact on other healthcare needs.
Consider Indian startup Niramai, which offers an innovative solution for an at-home breast health screening that is privacy-aware, no-touch, and non-invasive. Part of Niramai’s solution is Thermalytix, a computer-aided diagnostic engine that auto-generates a breast health report that a doctor can review.
Startups such as Artelus, Soporis Health, and Sense.ly, are using AI to monitor and study patient medical histories and symptoms to provide predictive feedback about an individual’s health. US-based startup Eko.ai uses AI to remotely monitor cardiopulmonary vital signs of at-home patients for early detection of heart and lung problems.
Such promising solutions give hope for a future of telemedicine and health access that reaches out to patients before they find the need to reach for medical help. All said and done, a viable transformation is only as healthy as its data privacy and security, an important aspect that cannot be overlooked.
Vinod Bijlani, a thought leader in data science, AI and IoT, wrote this article.
Vinod Bijlani leads the AI and IoT Practice for HPE. He is primarily a technologist passionate about creating, finding machine learning and AI solutions that will move humanity and the environment forward. He has contributed to the design and implementation of smart city projects and established intelligent public transportation and traffic ecosystems in India, Singapore, and the U.S. He also has over 22 years of experience in creating solutions and is a distinguished inventor with 25 patents in AI and ML technologies. Bijlani envisions a radically safer, healthier, and more sustainable planet with the democratization of AI, Industry 5.0, and 5G technologies.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CDOTrends. Image credit: iStockphoto/elenabs