Group managing director at ENA Care, Mitch Miller, discusses the part that artificial intelligence (AI) will play in the healthcare sector.
There’s no doubt about it: the UK’s social care system is struggling. Council budgets are still being slashed, Covid-19 has devastated the sector and more people than ever are having to fund their own care.
All the while, the proportion of the UK population aged over 65 is growing and growing. In 1950, it stood at 11% and by 2019 it was 19%. Falling birth rates and longer life expectancy will see this trend continue.
Light on the horizon comes in the form of AI, with many innovative companies trying to introduce their products into the ailing healthcare sector. Although they’ll never replace human carers, care bots, virtual companions and remote monitoring tech can all reduce the impact of a huge staff shortfall in the healthcare industry. They can also create new efficiencies to help get the sector back on its feet.
Of course, as with any emerging technology, there will be resistance and teething issues, but the possibilities for AI in healthcare are certainly exciting. Here we examine some of the opportunities and how they could be implemented in the coming years.
The term care bot might conjure up images of robot nurses, but the reality is that care bots are more often AI-driven systems involving sensors, algorithms and other devices that help to monitor people and make decisions. And they’re already at work in many places.
In the US, some states have been using automated decision-making tools to assess eligibility for healthcare for years. Booking appointments, passing on medical notes and processing prescriptions are other tasks that care bots could take out of human hands.
In 2017, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council even put a physical robot to work. Named Pepper, it can communicate, understand basic human emotions and make independent decisions – and has been helping people with dementia and children with complex disabilities.
Robots like Pepper cost around £19,000, roughly the same as the average annual salary for a care worker in south-east England. Of course, they can’t replace human carers, not least of all because care requires empathy and genuine companionship.
Yet it’s been estimated that care bots and full automation could save the NHS up to £12.5 billion a year (almost 10% of its annual running costs), so the incentives for an overstretched sector are clear.
Smart technology and devices
The variety of smart tech with applications in the care industry is huge – and constantly growing.
Robotic pets and conversation-starting robots can enhance the happiness and wellbeing of elderly people. While wearable vital signs trackers and toilets that analyse stool samples can actively monitor people’s health.
There’s also an expanding market in smart tech for carers to use themselves. A prime example of this is Embodied Labs, which uses VR to put carers in the shoes of people with macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and similar conditions. They can then better understand the limitations and experiences of the people they’re caring for.
Remote monitoring solutions
Whether they’re focused on caring for the elderly or those with disabilities, healthcare providers have a duty to preserve individuals’ independence as much as possible. It’s vital, therefore, that AI and smart tech doesn’t get too invasive.
Recent years have seen a whole host of remote monitoring solutions emerge, which provide carers with data and even alerts if needed, without interfering with anybody’s independence. There are now sensors and tech that can let carers know if someone has been in the toilet longer than usual, hasn’t used the kettle or hasn’t taken medication. Innovations like this pick up changes in behaviour that might signal cognitive decline or an accident at home. Howz is one leading name in this field and already provides monitoring data to NHS teams.
Such collaborations will become more commonplace as healthcare authorities and providers look for answers to staffing and funding shortages. The AI-powered healthcare tools market is projected to be worth $34 billion by 2025. Increasingly, we’ll begin to see remote monitoring complement human care-giving, letting the carers know when their assistance is required.
A step up from this is biometric monitoring, which uses wearable tech to keep track of vitals such as heart rate and oxygen levels, while also logging sleeping and activity patterns. Some can even detect if repetitive movements have been made, indicating if somebody has eaten or not.
The path forward
As impressive as they are, not all AI healthcare devices are 100% accurate yet and some of those individuals being monitored – even if it is remotely – will put up resistance. Nonetheless, with the benefits of the technology and the need for it so great, the rise of AI in healthcare is inevitable.
There is also some evidence to suggest that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused more elderly people to embrace technology. Research from The Centre for Better Ageing revealed that 47% of the UK’s over-75s were recent internet users and 75% now use video calling more often. With more than 3.8 million over-65s living alone in the UK, older people may increasingly come to rely upon digital means for communication and healthcare.
The NHS is committed to growing the use of AI in healthcare. One of its long-term plans is to ‘use decision support and artificial intelligence (AI) to help clinicians in applying best practice, eliminate unwarranted variation across the whole pathway of care, and support patients in managing their health and condition’.
With the staffing shortage ongoing, the private sector will also have to embrace any developments in AI that can offer its personnel support. Fortunately, a large number of companies in the UK are innovating in this area, making it a fertile ground for breakthroughs and growth in AI-enabled healthcare.