Chatbot diagnosis, consultations by video call and no waiting rooms – welcome to healthcare in the digital age, where GPs are not necessarily the first port of call for patients looking to understand their ailments.
All around the world, a host of apps are combining artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms with the medical expertise of human doctors to deliver healthcare at the touch of a button. The basic premise of such apps is that patients are able to receive medical advice and treatment without the physical presence of a healthcare specialist. By optimising the clinical process, these AI health assistants can cover a substantial chunk of clinical and outpatient services, enabling time-strained GPs to attend to more critical cases.
In the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been pushing hard to digitalise the country’s National Health Service (NHS). His most innovative move to date has been the launch of an AI-powered app called GP at Hand, run by British start-up Babylon Health.
Founded in 2013 by Ali Parsa, a former Goldman Sachs banker, Babylon has gone on to become one of the UK's most valuable technology start-ups with approximately 210k monthly active users. In August 2019, the start-up raised $550m from investors in a deal valuing the company at more than $2bn. Babylon’s partnership with the NHS aims to support and complement current health care services, giving its patients access to healthcare practitioners anytime and anywhere. Currently the only virtual doctor start-up that works with the NHS, Babylon also has operations in Rwanda and hopes to expand to the Middle East, the United States, and China.
With approximately 791k monthly active users, Berlin and London-baser Ada Health is the UK’s most popular app-based health assistant. Founded by a team of doctors, scientists and industry pioneers, the app has gone on to secure the number 1 spot in the iOS Apple Store Medical category in 130 countries since its launch in late 2016. Ada works by requesting users to input their symptoms into an AI-powered symptom checker. The more patients use Ada, the smarter it becomes. Other services that Ada provides include symptom assessment reports and the option to contact a real doctor. The app can also integrate its technology with Amazon Alexa to improve user experience.
Even though Ada and Babylon remain two of the most popular healthcare apps in the UK, another equally interesting application of AI and ML in medical apps comes in the form of Your M.D, an app that provides basic healthcare. The platform contains an extensive network of medical information that links symptoms to causes. Its chatbot, which is currently attracting over 189k monthly active users, enquires about users’ symptoms and provides information about their medical conditions. The app leverages machine learning algorithms to create a complex map of the user’s condition and provide personalised steps and measures to remedy the illness, including notifying users when they need to see a real GP. Over the last few years, Your M.D has seen a dramatic surge in popularity in locations such as the Philippines, South Africa and India.
The most significant driver for medical apps is the current global shortage of medical professionals that has led to pressure on the available healthcare workers. Doctors are stretched thin to respond to the growing needs of the patients. In remote or rural areas where visiting a doctor can be time-consuming and expensive for patients, apps such as Your M.D, Ada and Babylon are praised for their accessibility to reach people who would otherwise may not have bothered seeking medical help.
But not everybody is enamoured. Critics argue that these Google Play and iOS App Store doctors are data-protection disasters in the waiting. The other big question, of course, is how many conditions can genuinely be dealt with virtually given that a doctor is unable to take the patent’s blood pressure or check their temperature? A prescription for the oral contraceptive pill, for example, is quick and easy but the doctor needs to check the patient’s blood pressure first. This obviously cannot be done virtually. Furthermore, in order for AI symptom checkers to diagnose effectively, they have to ask a lot of questions (well in excess of 30) and quite often, patients get ‘app fatigue’ and give up.
When it comes to healthcare, mobile apps are not necessarily about replacing the subtlety and insight of human doctors, but optimising and improving their abilities. That being said, unlike other technology start-ups disrupting legacy industries, it is still unclear how much freedom regulators will allow AI health assistants in a sector where people’s lives are at stake.