As waiting lists for medical procedures and appointments grow and patient demand continues to increase, legacies of understaffing, underfunding and underinvestment have collided head-on with the Coronavirus pandemic to create a perfect storm in the world of healthcare.
Systems already straining under a myriad of pressures and stresses now find themselves facing an even stronger tide to swim against as they battle with a virus that has claimed almost 2m lives globally in just 12 months, manage large-scale vaccination programmes, and continue to deal with the day-to-day demands of the job.
As fears grow over the shift in the balance between safety and efficacy and targets, many within the sector have expressed increased concerns regarding an investigation should patients come to harm because of delays and reduced services during the pandemic. (MPS survey)
Change now seems not only inevitable but also essential.
While costs, efficiencies and funding streams will be central to these considerations, there is now a real opportunity to fully embrace the benefits of emergent technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), patient-focused technology and patient autonomy.
As with most things new, public hesitance is to be expected. However, as Coronavirus has grown, so too has our reliance on technology. This can be seen clearly in the worlds of education and business where both have adapted quickly and relatively seamlessly to a much more ‘online’ experience.
Covid-19 has forced many to become much more tech-literate and savvy, something that could well prove invaluable in a move to a more automated, technology-reliant healthcare system.
AI has already played an integral role in the unprecedented speed at which vaccines for the disease have been produced. Through its use, companies like Pfizer/BioNtech and AstraZeneca have been able to utilize and evaluate volumes of data that would have taken countless man-hours to compile and possibly impacted detrimentally on the manufacture and delivery times for the much-needed formulas.
Instead, through the implementation of AI, users have been able to process enormous amounts of data, research and findings from a myriad of sources while simultaneously being best placed to assess risks and tweak formulations and design models to ensure the rapid manufacture and distribution of the safest product possible.
The rise in the use of AI will boost the pharmaceutical industry. It ensures optimum products by working continuously with multiple data sources to respond to any risks or concerns immediately which in turn saves time and money while also boosting user safety and necessary regulatory compliance.
Drug research aside, AI at its most rudimentary has the potential to be a driving force in medical manufacture. Put simply, machines can work faster for longer periods than their human counterparts, a vital quality to meet the demands of vaccine supply.
Similar principles could be applied to ensure the mass and continued disinfection of key equipment and rooms completely autonomously, freeing up time and resources for more pressing ‘public-facing’ tasks.
Already, hotels in China are using robots to deliver food to residents under quarantine, and in Spain, it is planned to increase the rate of testing for Covid-19 using AI-powered robots. AI is also at the heart of Amazon’s new Pharmacy section with the use of Chatbots and drone delivery services, while their Alexa devices can diagnose Covid-19 using information provided by local health bodies.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the emergence of sophisticated AI could ease ongoing pressures through the provision of autonomous surgical robots. Meanwhile, virtual nursing assistants and automated image diagnosis could ease waiting lists at GP surgeries and A&E Departments by providing a more holistic approach to healthcare by combining the expertise of Doctors, Dentists, Opticians, and other related professionals at the touch of a button.
Of course, these steps forward, while monumental and potentially life-changing, will never be a replacement for human interaction. Person-to-person communication remains essential to ensure healthcare and pharma is as patient-focused as possible, and the two should work hand in hand.
Indeed, many of us have already taken those first steps into improving our health awareness using AI through wearable technology. Smartwatches, exercise apps and even sleep analysis devices are just some of the ways we are learning more about our bodies and their needs.
We stand on the edge of enormous change. We must embrace it and use it to our full advantage.
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