The Union Health Ministry recently announced its plans to introduce Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the healthcare sector. As part of the announcement, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan stated that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) was working on ways to safely and effectively implement AI measures to address gaps in the public health infrastructure. While the introduction of such a system to monitor prevalent public health issues such as diabetes and tuberculosis is certainly aspirational, what would incorporating AI into public health entail? Could the introduction of such a system truly be able to provide quality healthcare in areas where there are limited resources?
At present, the ministry plans on using AI systems to tackle the menace of diabetes and tuberculosis, two health issues which are of particular importance to the Indian population. The Health Minister has said that the plan is for AI to detect early onset of diabetic retinopathy, which often goes undetected due to its silent nature. Over 70 million people in Southeast Asia reportedly suffer from the disease, without even being aware of it. Google too recently announced its intentions to work with doctors from India to tackle the issue utilising AI programmes.
The minister also added that the Centre has taken initiatives to implement AI in public healthcare in the form of an Imaging Biobank for Cancer in order to put together a database of the most prevalent cancers in India. It plans on doing this by putting together data of over 20,000 profiles of cancer patients.
How can AI systems impact the future of public healthcare in India?
According to one study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the use of AI in healthcare may have incredibly positive outcomes in areas where resources are limited. “The ubiquitous use of smartphones, combined with growing investments in supporting technologies (eg, mHealth, EMR and cloud computing), provide ample opportunities to use AI applications to improve public health outcomes in low-income country settings,” note the authors of the study.
Aravind Eye Care in Madurai is already working with Google to detect and diagnose diabetic retinopathy before a harmful stage, wherein the individual may potentially lose their vision. At one of their 70 satellite clinics located throughout south India (located in areas where people cannot access routine screenings), trained nurses take a picture of an individual’s retinas. This image is then uploaded to a programme where Google’s algorithm takes over to detect and diagnose the disease.
In 2018, Ping An Technology, a Chinese conglomerate, expanded its healthcare platform with the introduction of its ‘One-Minute Clinics,’ unstaffed clinics which function with the help of AI systems which are connected to the company’s ‘Good Doctor’ healthcare platform. Such a clinic can provide consultations for more than 2,000 common ailments and is capable of answering numerous medical questions in seconds.
While the general outlook towards AI in the public healthcare sector remains largely positive, it is not without its own hiccups. There are several challenges, not only in implementing such systems, but also in designing them. AI requires support for clinical decisions and precise details need to be paid attention to and worked out. Particularly when it comes to rural areas, there are still unanswered questions about how these systems will be implemented effectively when these places lack basic resources, as pointed out by a study done in part with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While it will be years before India can transfer the responsibility of healthcare to AI systems, the more short-term hassles are what need to be addressed.