How likely is the scenario where we rely on AI to help save our lives in a hospital? What new groundbreaking health tech is currently making waves that people in the Baltic States could benefit from? Why it does not make sense to invest all the state money allocated for healthcare just in buildings and people? CEO of Digital Mind offers his perspective.

Healthcare has long been a “focus industry” for the largest tech companies in the world. First, because it’s a field that affect literary every human being on earth. Second, innovations in this field are often life saving and game changing. That means huge opportunities to make a huge profit, so it’s no surprise that billions are getting invested and amazing products are being developed by the combined efforts of Healthcare and Tech industries. Arora, Ceccagnoli and Cohen (2008) concluded that investments made into innovative, patent protected medical technology, have the highest ROI and patent premium out of 19 compared industries (including Biotech, Semi-conductors, Industrial Chemistry)[1].

In the Baltic States introduction of technology in healthcare is a rather mixed bag. While Estonia is claiming success with Electronic Health Record and e-Prescription, similar systems in Latvia and Lithuania have been developed and are currently undergoing implementation, but are facing serious challenges. In Latvia mandatory use of e-prescription system is even cited one of the reasons for an ongoing strike action by General Practitioners (family doctors), who claim that that the system is clumsy, inefficient and hard to use). So while I understand that to call for more investment in medical technology in times when doctors, nurses and other hospital staff are underpaid and facilities lacking, might not be the popular thing to do, I’d still like to paint a picture of how I’ d like to see the interaction between a doctor and a patient in a near future.

Let’ s imagine and oncology patient, for who his doctor can recommend with a 98% certainty an evidence-based and personalized treatment plan, that is specifically adjusted for his condition, medical history and lifestyle. A treatment plan that has minimal side-effects and high probability of success. And this doctor can do it in a couple of minutes, thanks to an analysis of hundreds of millions of similar cases – symptoms, treatment plans and results – from the whole world. The doctor also has access to multiple alternative treatment plans, research and other documentation backing these suggestions, as well as notes and experience of other oncologists who’ve faced similar cases. This doctor no longer has to spend days researching, while looking for possible solutions to atypical and rare cases. The risk that patient will receive treatment that is not optimal or does not work at all is significantly reduced. The doctor can spend more time talking to his patient, because virtual assistant and adviser can deliver all the information required to make informed, data based decisions within minutes, not weeks.

IBM Watson for Oncology is one such rapidly developing technology solution that makes a huge first impression. This cognitive computing system and understand and process the patient test results and medical history, to provide a personalized treatment options with the highest possibility of success. It has constantly updating knowledge base that consists of over 100 million oncology tests and treatment protocols, as well as huge library of medical information. Watson uses all this data to compare against, analyze and interpret any newly added information (i.e. new patient test results), to form a hypothesis. Similar solutions with various applications in Healthcare industry are currently under development by many leading IT companies –  Microsoft Healthcare NExT, Google DeepMind Health, and GE are just a few.

These technology solutions are not meant to replace a doctor (at leas not for a foreseeable future). They are here to help doctors make faster and better decisions, saving time that can be spent providing care and support for the patients. Currently Watson Oncology system are used in clinics in USA, India, Japan and China. IBM also has reached a government level deals with multiple European countries to provide this and other Watson based solutions for healthcare assistance for the whole country.

Unfortunately it is quite likely that in the Baltic States financing for healtchcare will continue to be insufficient to cover all needs. In this situation it is very important to carefully evaluate where each euro spent can actually deliver the largest benefit. Therefore I believe that focusing only on trying to meet the (often completely justified) financial demands of the medical personnel fails to provide a long term solution and does not put the patient at the center of the conversation.

Meanwhile by slowly but purposefully investing in innovative medical technology solutions and by creating 1-2 competence centers that would focus on developing and providing specific healthcare services, it would be possible to increase the quality of the services (shorter treatment periods and less chronic patients = smaller expenses) and would enable doctors to treat more patients (solves the issue of deficit of medical personnel). In longer term the use of such advanced technology solutions can lead to significant improvements to the general health and quality of live for every citizen.

Practical first step to get acquainted with such technology and evaluate its worth would be to engage in a smaller pilot projects offered by several tech giants. For example IBM offers fully configured Watson Oncology system to be used in one hospital for personalized treatment of 1000 oncology patients withing 1 year period. Such pilot project is a typical start that can lead to a larger scale introduction of AI systems in Healthcare services.

This solution is available to be used withing one week of signing the agreement. All that’s necessary is ambition, belief that technology can improve the existing healthcare system, political support, budget and, of course, doctors that are open to innovation.

1] Ashish Aroraa, Marco Ceccagnoli, Wesley M.Cohen, R&D and the patent premium. International Journal of Industrial Organization, vol 26., 2008.