In this speech given at Mobile World Congress 2022 Barcelona, Vinod Kumar, Vodafone Business CEO, explores how artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are transforming healthcare and could help solve some of the sector’s most pressing challenges.
For a long time, I have been fascinated by AI and the role it can play alongside humans in transforming businesses and the workforce. One area I believe AI will become key is in helping alleviate two challenges facing the healthcare sector:
- The ability to access healthcare when and where it is needed
- The accessibility and reach of mental health services
These topics are close to my heart – like many people, the health and wellbeing of my loved ones is the most precious thing to me – but also close to our company’s mission. We believe that the digital society should be accessible to every single person, with no one left behind. AI and robotics will help us in this mission and to overcome some of the barriers patients face when accessing healthcare.
Advancements in technology during the pandemic
Already today, and accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen a number emerging health care trends take flight: Virtual GP consultations are now commonplace, and doctors are more reliant on remote patient monitoring technologies. The pandemic has served as a catalyst by creating many new opportunities for technological advancements, and it’s great to see that the healthcare sector has been embracing the digital revolution.
For example, Cloud Computing and IoT-enabled sensors have been used to safeguard medication throughout the supply chain by tracking and providing near-real time information on storage temperature and other critical issues like tampering. Edge Computing is being used by first responders such as police and paramedics wearing cameras to provide an accurate picture of incidents in real-time, streaming it straight back to expert teams so they can monitor the situation, and adequately prepare to care for the victim before they arrive.
These are examples happening in the world today, mainly enabled by fast and reliable connectivity. But I believe AI and robotics bring an even greater opportunity to the healthcare sector and can help tackle some of the biggest challenges providers face today.
Challenge 1: AI making healthcare accessible for everyone, anywhere at any time
The first challenge I want to address is access to healthcare. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the care they need when they need it. There are many reasons why this problem exists, and one of the biggest ones is that in many places around the world there are simply not enough doctors to see all the patients that need their help. The UK has fewer doctors per head of population than most other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): 2.8 per 1000 people. That figure does not improve if we go further west, with Canada and the US having 2.7 and 2.6 respectively (vs an average of 3.4 doctors per 1000 people across the OECD).
In this instance, AI and robotics can act as a multiplier of scarce resources. In 2019 we have showcased a remote surgery being performed from the stage of the Vodafone Village in Milan, where Professor Doctor Trimarchi carried out a procedure using 5G enabled robotic micro-manipulator grippers to treat diseases affecting the vocal cords on a synthetic larynx model at the San Raffaele hospital, located at the other side of the city. This unique event gives a taste of what healthcare in the future might look like, making medical and surgical expertise available on an ever-greater scale and eliminating geographical barriers, enabling skilled doctors to perform more surgeries in the same time that previously would have been spent travelling.
But AI and robotics applications can play a role even before there is need for medical intervention in a patient. Let me introduce you to Olivia, a 40-year-old mum of 3 who is showing signs of pre-diabetes, but she doesn’t know it. She has a very busy schedule and never has any time for herself: during the day she is at home looking after the kids and at night she goes to her part time job as a call centre agent. She is always stressed and eats on the go and if she continues like this, she will develop type II diabetes in less than a year from now. Olivia goes to the doctor, but always for her children or her mother, never for herself. Her carer responsibilities always come first, although she knows she should pay more attention to herself. Olivia decides to invest in a smart watch and buys a subscription to an AI enabled health app. The AI recommends Olivia try out the new Health Pod that her employer has installed in their offices. The Pod has testing capabilities built in such as pulse oximeters, blood pressure monitors, mirrors that can detect skin conditions or eye problems, all done automatically with the use of robotics. Within a few weeks, the AI has enough data about her eating and sleeping habits, her stress levels, her daily activities, and routines that it gives her a pre-diabetic diagnosis. The AI also gives her comprehensive information about what it means, what risks she faces and suggests manageable changes that she can make to reverse the course of the disease. It creates a personalised coaching plan for Olivia and gives her daily tips on how she can improve her health.
Within a year, Olivia has increased her activity levels motivated and encouraged by the AI, and has reduced her stress levels using the mindfulness and meditation techniques she learnt through the health app. Had Olivia continued her lifestyle before making the changes suggested by the AI, she would have required regular hospitals appointments, and her quality of life would have deteriorated. But luckily, she acted on the personalised advice, improved her health, and didn’t need any help from the healthcare system, freeing up physicians’ time to be in more difficult or complex cases.
A recent report by Deloitte predicts that by 2025 many more people will be informed about their health risks and take a proactive approach to prevention and treatment. People will monitor their healthcare data through apps, wearables, and other connected devices, but for some individuals, data alone may not be enough to influence behaviour change. AI enabled technology can step in and provide a virtual coach or a digital twin like in the case of Olivia.
Challenge 2: AI to increase the reach of mental healthcare
The second challenge I will be speaking to you about today is the growing number of patients with mental health problems. According to the World Health organisation, globally, poor mental health affects at least 10% of the world’s population with 20% of children and adolescents suffering from some type of mental disorder. During the Covid-19 pandemic, research across 40 countries done by CARE International found 27% of women and 10% of men reported an increase in mental health problems.
While as a society we have gone a long way in normalising discussions about mental health, the stigma of suffering from mental health illness is still a barrier that prevents patients from accessing mental health services. But even when patients overcome the stigma of accessing mental health services, there are still many cases of illness going undiagnosed due to there not being enough specialist physicians and very long waiting lists.
Let’s talk a bit about Emma – she is a 14-year-old girl whose parents got divorced last year. She has been attending school virtually and has not been able to see any of her friends for over two years. Emma is feeling anxious and isolated and the pressures of the past two years have changed her personality and transformed her from a happy child to a withdrawn one. She has started self-harming as a coping mechanism.
Emma’s Mum has noticed the change in her child and is concerned that her mental health is worsening. When she talks to Emma about it, she understands that her daughter needs urgent help, but seeing a physician in their town is impossible due to the to the very long waiting list. Instead of waiting two years to get help face to face, Emma starts doing Virtual Reality-enabled therapy and her virtual physician encourages her to start using a mood tracking app, and to connect her social media platforms to a specialised app that uses AI technology. Using data points gathered from Emma’s posts on Instagram, her smartphone usage, mood rating and notes from her VR sessions, the AI helps her practitioner make a diagnosis and suggests an actionable treatment plan. With close monitoring from her physician, her Mum and the AI, Emma manages to overcome her anxiety and stops the self-harming behaviour.
An opportunity to deliver better healthcare systems
These are just a few examples where I think AI & robotics will have a big impact in the healthcare sector in the coming future, and there are many more that will continue to emerge as the pace of digitisation of healthcare accelerates with the introduction of the latest technologies available.
We have an opportunity right now to go beyond just delivering a piece of ‘cool tech’ – we have the chance to create ecosystems that will deliver benefits to our healthcare systems and change our society for the better. I hope that we will see many different technologies, like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, 5G, mobile edge computing and mobile private networks to name a few, come together to enable countless use cases to revolutionise healthcare, forming cohesive ecosystems in which players will collaborate for the best possible outcome rather than compete to try to be the dominant force.
In addition to collaboration, we will need integration between these different technologies to be as seamless and as automatic as possible. Do you remember Olivia from the beginning of my talk? To enable her to take advantage of the benefits technology can deliver, we need to make the technology easy to set up and use, there needs to be seamless integration between Olivia’s smart watch, the Health Pod she uses at work and her AI device – or else she will end up being frustrated by the process of setting everything up and give up on using the technology.
That’s one of the reasons we have partnered with Deloitte to launch The Vodafone Centre for Health, making use of our fast and secure 5G connectivity to enable more people across Europe to access healthcare when and where they need it. This strategic alliance will act as an accelerator of digital solutions to support the transformation of healthcare services and to help the societies we serve. As I stand here on this stage, I am aware that in the audience are some of the biggest players in telecoms and the technology industries today. My challenge to you all is that we must combine our efforts to develop more than just cool tech. So, I leave you with the following question: What role will you play in transforming healthcare? What role will we play together in accelerating the digitalisation of our healthcare systems?
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