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Healthcare hold-ups: could a computer save your life?

By Ashleigh Adair

8 April 2015
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Image credit: I, Robot (film), 20th Century Fox, 2004

We’ve been hearing a lot about automation and its place in the workforce lately, with technological innovations leading a dramatic shift in how we communicate, how we work but also how we deal with health care hold-ups.

As a relatively new patient on the NHS and having heard the horror stories of people dying whilst on waiting-lists, I am fundamentally a supporter of automated systems – or any systems – that speed up the process of getting sick people the care they need when they need it.

The computer self-check-in at health clinics in the UK is a fairly common example of how automation can increase productivity and reduce wait-times. Online symptom-checkers, net-Doctors and txt-based patient services are also good examples of filtering mass demand to reduce appointments and therefore patient wait-times (despite the risks of misguided self-diagnosis).

What caught my eye recently however, is IBM Watson – the super smart supercomputer leading the way in cognitive computing that famously beat two Jeopardy! winners in a battle royal back in 2011. What’s unique about Watson (above its impressive information processing speed) is its ability to interpret and understand natural human language and syntax, as well as to solve complex problems at scale and – importantly – remember and learn after every interaction with a question.

As well as the obvious application of such information processing power in the Retail and Financial sectors, where it gets especially interesting for us at Forster, is the impact on Healthcare. As with Google’s ever-advancing search algorithm, we stand to live in a future where humans will be guided by machines in virtually everything that we do – not through a forceful capture of our human right of choice, but through gradual, almost unnoticeable changes in how we solve problems together. “Just ask Google” is already common language right now in 2015. We already rely on Google to answer simple questions for us, like good neighbourhoods to buy a house in, or what celiac disease is, or (increasingly) using Google to self-diagnose. And with Google set to be cleverer than humans by 2029, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that soon we will happy go to Watson to tell us how best to treat our cancers and conditions.

In early 2013, IBM announced that the Watson software system’s first commercial use would be for processing large amounts of information on lung cancer treatment decisions, in partnership with health insurer WellPoint. Apparently 90% of nurses in the lung cancer treatment field, who use Watson, now follow its guidance.

Imagine the time it would save to have a reliable source of treatment decision-making that wasn’t skewed by personal opinion, personal experience, or other ‘human factors’? Imagine a world where diagnosis, cure research, and treatment plans are generated immediately, while factoring real-time research developments and predictions to literally give you the best possible chance of survival with a good quality of life? A world that isn’t restricted by information bottlenecks, where open data and cloud computing is the norm and the fundamental source for answers is a polite computer who cannot lie and is never wrong?

There is obviously a moral line in here somewhere, as with all technology advancements pertaining to caring for humans, but only time will tell where we draw that line.

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