The AI Will See You Now: How Chatbots and Machine Learning Are Changing Doctor Visits

October 24, 2018 - 8 minutes read

Artificial intelligence (AI) is revamping warehouse operations, how recruiters use LinkedIn, and what songs get recommended to you on Spotify. And now, it’s also paying a visit to the doctor. Several startups and medical app developers see a future where your doctor has less paperwork, you visit the clinic less, and receiving medical advice takes much less investment and time overall.

Babylon is one such startup making strides toward this future. The London-based healthcare technology company is working on perfecting an AI app that helps you navigate whether your issue warrants a doctor’s visit or not.

Triage Me First

Babylon’s app queries the user about their situation, medical history, recent activities, and more to gain a complete picture of the problem. Databases communicate on the back-end to sort through a multitude of medical information, while language processing technology works to understand the user’s symptoms. Machine learning creates correlations between the user’s symptoms and the database’s treasure trove of illnesses and conditions.

Ali Parsa, Babylon’s founder, says the best way to provide accessible and affordable healthcare to everyone on Earth is to stop patients from needing to visit the doctor. For example, Babylon reduced in-office visits by 50% during initial tests through advice on how to self-treat. Of course, if the user comes back with more issues or unresolved health, the app will recommend a doctor visit. It’ll also recommend an in-person visit if it’s unsure about the diagnosis.

In the UK, Babylon integrated with the National Health Service (NHS). The company ran a trial with the NHS’s non-emergency hotline, asking users if they wanted to wait for a human or download the Babylon-developed “NHS Online: 111” app. Almost 40,000 callers have downloaded the app so far. Reports found that Babylon and human agents directed the same proportion of people to go to the emergency room – about 21% of all callers.

A Shift in Priorities

Babylon also created the UK’s first digital practice for doctors, named “GP at Hand” (GP stands for general practitioner). Using the product, patients can check-in with their doctor through a video or text chat instead of visiting the office. This program helps doctors become the last line of medical help rather than the first.

And this has already proven itself in the market; in the UK, more than 50,000 people have signed on, including the UK’s health minister. They’ve also launched in Rwanda, and more than 20% of Rwandan adults are signed up. Canada, the U.S., the Middle East, and China are Babylon’s next markets.

Although the NHS provides taxpayer-funded healthcare at no cost to citizens, it’s a strained system that’s only getting worse with a growing population that will live longer. And patients in the UK are visiting the doctor twice as much as they used to 10 years ago.

The British Medical Association reported in 2016 that 84% of physicians considered their workloads to be “unmanageable” and “excessive”. What’s scarier is that those respondents also said their workloads were directly impacting the quality of care their patients received from them.

Stress-Testing the Healthcare System

Mobasher Butt is a physician and part of Babylon’s founding team. He says that “all health systems around the world are stretched. [There are] not enough clinical resources. There’s not enough money.”

Babylon’s AI-empowered app takes care of paperwork, prescribing medications, and monitoring care in the patient’s home. It frees up a lot of time, energy, and effort for physicians, allowing healthcare providers to put those mental resources towards their patients.

Naureen Bhatti, a general practitioner in London, says Babylon’s app is a huge step in the right direction of helping doctors manage time and patients better, and that “a GP is not always the best person to see. A nurse might be better at dressing a wound, and a pharmacist might be better for advice about a repeat prescription. Anything that helps unload a very overloaded system, allowing doctors to do what they are best at, is always welcome.”

Butt also adds that Babylon can help fill a knowledge gap in countries facing medical talent shortages.

Entrusting a Life to AI

Parsa says Babylon is like Facebook in that it gathers information, creates correlations and links, and prompts the user to make a decision. The company is proud that its chatbot scored 9% higher than the average UK medical student on a final exam for the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP).

But the RCGP isn’t keen on comparing its educational competence with an algorithm’s results. The college’s vice chair, Martin Marshall, says, “The potential of technology to support doctors to deliver the best possible patient care is fantastic, but at the end of the day, computers are computers, and GPs are highly trained medical professionals: the two can’t be compared and the former may support, but will never replace, the latter. No app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does.”

Indeed, relying on an app could be quite dangerous; Rwanda’s minister of health says Babylon’s app doesn’t take into account local epidemiology and is missing questions about malaria.

A Foggy Future

It’s unclear what healthcare will evolve into. Technology will certainly continue to creep into the healthcare system, and doctors will have to adapt to it. But, as Butt believes, chatbots won’t ever replace human physicians completely.

He says, “Care is not just about diagnosing or prescribing medicine. It’s about knowing your patient is going to be able to cope with the chemotherapy you’re proposing for them, knowing that their family will be able to offer them the support that they’re going to need for the next few months. Currently, there is no software that’s going to be able to replace that.”

We’re all about building tools to make doctors’ jobs easier and patients’ lives less stressful. But there are some jobs that AI won’t be taking over, even in the far future.

Will you use Babylon’s app when it comes to your country? Have you used other MedTech apps in the past? What did you think about their ability to help, put you at ease, and create a soothing user experience? Let us know in the comments!

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