Healthcare systems around the world are finding themselves increasingly stressed due to shortages in qualified workers. Many of these challenges, ironically, stem from these systems’ own successes as science and technology have allowed people to live longer than ever, even while dealing long-term conditions (LTCs). In many developed countries, there simply aren’t enough healthcare professionals to meet the needs of the ballooning populations of seniors and those with LTCs. This health worker shortage has been aptly branded as a “crisis” in the UK (and in that nation, the crisis has only accelerated in the wake of Brexit), but is an issue for nations all around the world. Fortunately, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can augment workers, automate complex processes and amplify productivity, making it an ideal solution for addressing the global healthcare worker shortage.

This does not mean, however, that doctors and nurses will be replaced by AI. While AI has proven its ability to handle specific medical tasks better than humans (e.g. detecting skin cancer through visual analysis), its greater potential will be in allowing healthcare workers to provide care more efficiently.

Engineering Around the Crisis

During this year’s Digital Workforce Summit in New York, IPsoft’s Global Cognitive Healthcare Solutions Director David Champeaux led a panel discussion on the potential of Cognitive Automated Healthcare in which he emphasized the ability to augment various aspects of care. “We really see a huge potential to augment the experience, augment quality, augment access, and augment obviously the efficiency in healthcare,” Champeaux told the DWS audience.

AI-powered automation doesn’t only have the potential to impact operational costs, it can make care better for patients.

There is little expectation that AI will completely replace doctors and nurses in the way that modern telephone networks replaced switchboard operators or electronic toll collection systems replaced toll workers.  Instead, we should expect to see cognitive agents like Amelia automate tasks that previously required a human to execute and therefore help make overall care more efficient.

For example, cognitive agents will have the ability to provide 24/7 access to personalized information (e.g. ordering prescriptions, providing prescription side effects and proactive reminders to take medicines), which can allow many patients to take care of their conditions from home under the remote supervision of a doctor or caregiver. This empowerment can allow patients to shorten hospital stays, or even avoid hospital visits altogether. Hospitals will then be able to reserve resources for the most critical needs.

Bye Bye, Bureaucracy

In addition to ubiquitous access to information, AI can assist patients with executing tasks that previously required medical support staff (e.g. management of appointments, prescription and test orders, as well as various tasks related to insurance). According to the National Institutes of Health, bureaucracy in healthcare was estimated to cost around $315 billion each year. When AI automates routine bureaucratic transactions between patients, providers and insurers, these funds can be reinvested elsewhere in the system or help bring down the ballooning costs of care.

However, AI-powered automation doesn’t only have the potential to impact operational costs, it can make care better for patients. When human healthcare workers are freed from routine high-volume tasks, they will be able to provide care to more patients and apply their uniquely human soft skills such as empathy and positivity (which are particularly vital in the healthcare sector).

While AI may be the key to making healthcare more cost-effective and accessible in rich nations, it will be completely transformative for patients in developing regions where healthcare shortages can mean the difference between life and death.

“[Many developed countries are dealing with] some degree of healthcare shortages for staff, but across the world, when you go across to Southeast Asia and to Africa, these are really compounded,” explained Dr. Niti Pall, the Medical Director of the global Health Practice at KPMG during the DWS healthcare panel discussion.

“For me in emerging economies, [cognitive healthcare] is not a nice thing to have or something we might have down the road, it’s a matter of life or death. We simply don’t have the doctors or nurses [in these regions], so it’s very important we start to look at virtual agents to augment the care,” she said.

Current healthcare workforce strategies are simply not up to the task of addressing current and future health needs around the world. Fortunately, we have a solution in the form of AI that can help societies make healthcare more efficient and accessible.

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