Harnessing artificial intelligence to improve healthcare delivery

There is no question about it: automation is here to stay and help us redefine the meaning of everything we do - including saving lives.

But how exactly can this technology truly assist healthcare providers? According to IBM (short for International Business Machines Corporation), it begins when computers are able to answer questions asked in natural language, and eventually overcome linguistic barriers, while also harnessing data in much faster time frames.

Such was the ethos presented and explored at the IBM Watson on Healthcare Seminar held recently at Monash University Malaysia. Led by IBM Asean’s strategic client business development leader Jitinder Magoon, the talk was fashioned around their technology: an intelligent question-answering computer system called Watson.

According to Magoon, the system has been utilised to create and advise deliverables in areas of personalised cancer treatment, drug discovery, and individualised health planning. Not only that, it can also take over administrative tasks traditionally done by nurses such as patient monitoring.

Watson could not come at a better time, as the healthcare ecosystem is steadily converging around the needs of the individual. The quest for case-by-case precision, Magoon believes, is becoming more important, ironically in a landscape where human limitations such as time and bias need to be transcended. Artificial intelligence (AI), through a thorough application of the Internet of Things (IoT), is what bridges the otherwise widening gap.

“The whole idea is that we embrace technology,” Magoon said, before acknowledging that implementing the tool in the Malaysian healthcare ecosystem will not be easy. Resistance is to be expected, especially among clinicians, whose work revolves around the experientiality of having direct contact with patients.

Magoon adds, “It is human nature to resist change. First, we’d say no, and that we don’t need it. But slowly, it will sink in and we realise we have to adapt.” Vouching for Watson’s credibility, he revealed that the system is currently assisting with the treatment of 14 variations of cancer worldwide.

Watson is designed to adapt to the evolving needs of human beings via conversational questions and answers. What we do not see behind the curtains is how the evidence-based system calculates and compartmentalises various potential solutions for one’s later retrieval, contemplation, and ultimately, professional call to action.

Grounding his talk in reality, Magoon also addressed a common societal concern with technological advances that affects even healthcare practitioners: loss of jobs. Referring to examples like the globally utilised Da Vinci robotic laparoscopic system, he says, “I think those who would worry the most are the surgeons. This is because the machines are more precise, especially when it comes delicate procedures such as brain surgery.”

However, human cognition is still very much needed to steer and control the direction of the work done by technology-assisted operators. The only change is that ‘there will be shifts in the kind of work being done” and how they ultimately nurse society back to the pink of health.

Providing a relatable analogy to how important humans are to the unchangeably vital human-technology symbiosis, Magoon says, “If you look at Star Trek, it’s the humans that control these [technological] things. These tools will always be the best help available to you. We are doing a lot of manual things today that the machines can help with.” Technology, as he would conclude, is here to assist and expedite our processes but not to override our decisions.

For more information on Monash University Malaysia, please visit www.monash.edu.my.