AI, Chatbots and the future of healthcare – a better prescription?

With businesses increasingly looking to automate their customer service, Babylon has created an artificial intelligence (AI) solution which looks to bridge the gap between a GP and a chatbot. But can a chatbot really replace the knowledge and experience of a GP, we investigate?

Connecting with AI

Babylon, a company most recently known for their remote GP service and currently used in the NHS along with healthcare systems in countries such as Rwanda, has released a new form of AI that asserts how it can accurately diagnose conditions.

In fact, a recent experiment conducted through the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) shows that when assessed against conditions most frequently seen, the AI displayed 98% accuracy rate vs the 52-99% accuracy compared to human doctors.

The main idea behind this new AI, which takes the form of a chatbot, is that it will be able to provide people with an affordable and accessible healthcare system, that anyone can use.

For people in third world countries, remote areas and less wealthy regions where today’s leading healthcare isn’t always readily available; this system will allow patients to get diagnosed quickly so they can receive the medical attention they require.

How does the AI chatbot work?

The chatbot works through complex natural language processing and probabilistic graphical models.

Babylon’s chatbot is further looking to develop its software with the addition of facial recognition and voice analysis. These additions, if adopted, will help AI notice subtle changes in tone and also expressions to detect pain levels and other behavioural indicators.

Indeed, one of the main challenges GPs face is reading between the lines of what patients say. With the additional facial recognition and voice analysis, the AI could start to do this as well and possibly perform better at it than its human counterparts.

How much can we rely on this AI?

At this point in time, AI is developing rapidly, and we are seeing huge strides in how ‘human’ they can appear. However, we are not at a stage where this kind of software can be used all on its own. The CEO of Babylon, Ali Parsa, has said himself that the AI and the human GP should be used together so “they can improve each other”. (Kahn, n.d.)

However, in areas where there may be a lack of doctors this AI can be a lifesaver. As we mentioned earlier in the article, Babylon has had a huge impact in Rwanda. In recent years, Babylon has used their GP service to help tens of thousands of patients and gain over two million users across the country. (Strick, n.d.)

This is different from AI as this requires real GPs to support the patient but the principle is the same.

Further to this, RCGP has highlighted how we may need to take this AI and the results of recent assessments with a pinch of salt. We will soon see AI evolving and improving as  machine learning takes hold.

However, nothing at this point will be an alternative of the intuition and knowledge of a seasoned GP. To sum this up “no app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does”, however, we should add ‘for now’, as in a few years we may see this being the norm. (Sandle, n.d.)

Is the chatbot trend dying?

Chatbots have been around for a few years now, however, when they first appeared people were hugely optimistic about the future of communications with the public.

Not only are Chatbots huge for businesses everywhere, they are now going to be huge for the health service. It could be argued, however, that chatbots had too much hype to live up to.

Chatbots can be a great tool for customer engagement and providing your clients with valuable insights quickly. But they are yet to become completely mainstream and adopted by everyone. The idea of talking to a computer, from a user experience perspective; just makes sense. However, the software and technology for this are yet to live up to our expectations.  (Kaplun, n.d.)

One example of this disappointment was demonstrated at IBM Watson Health. This AI was criticised for falling short of its promises and never made it mainstream. It also seems IBM has lost its faith in the platform with around 50-70% of its staff in the division being laid off in the last few months.

What’s the future of Babylon’s healthcare AI?

To summarise, AI and its use in healthcare is a brilliant idea; although it may alienate some GPs already in the sector, the benefits cannot be understated.

However, the use of Babylon’s chatbot is not meant to displace current GPs or replace GPs, instead, it is supposed to help support and improve the quality of service given to patients.

This idea is especially important in poorer areas where the chatbot may be someone’s only source of healthcare support. It’s still early days and innovations and improvements in this area are expected to be constant and dramatic.