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BusinessDay: The future of medicine: the robot will see you now

By Johan Steyn, 11 August 2021

From drones to smartphones, artificial intelligence is helping to deliver medical technology to those who need it the most.

I live near a large hospital and drive past it almost every day. I do not like hospitals. They are places of health care and healing, but also of death. A hospital is the last line of defence where we mortals try in desperation to end suffering and prevent death. But our science almost always leaves us behind in the dust.

The quest for immortality has obsessed humans for as long as we have walked the earth. Alchemists over many eras and civilisations tried to create the elixir of eternal life. The ancients in India, China and Mesopotamia pursued ways to avoid death. Some call it the philosopher’s stone, a potion believed to bring perpetual youth.

While modern medicine may sometimes perform miracles, it also frequently provides care that is dangerous, unreliable and prohibitively costly. Technology, meanwhile, has been hailed for years as the panacea for all of health care’s woes.

And after years of resisting computerisation health care has finally gone digital. It is among the industries that have benefited the most from the smart technology era.

An example is radiology, the branch of modern medicine where imaging technology is used to diagnose and treat disease. Machine learning algorithms are very good at image recognition. Medical technologists feed the artificial intelligence (AI) millions of brain, lung or breast scans and the technology helps doctors to compare them with a multitude of categorised images in split seconds, providing an instant and accurate diagnosis.

Not only does the smart technology era vastly increase the effectiveness of medical treatment, it also promises to greatly lower the cost of medicine. This is good news for the large majority of people on Earth who do not have access to medical care. Technological advancements result in smaller and more affordable devices — just think of your mobile phone — and these devices are becoming more powerful by the day.

Complex and expensive medical equipment and medicine are becoming easier to transport to outlying areas where they are most needed. According to the World Economic Forum, about 2-billion individuals do not have access to essential medication, mostly because they reside in deep rural areas. Drones have been used to deliver personal protective equipment and medicine to out-of-reach areas affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. They have also been used by the SA National Blood Service to deliver urgently needed blood supplies to rural clinics.

The University of Pretoria’s Kathryn Malherbe and her team at Med Sol AI Solutions are deploying cost-effective wireless ultrasound probes from Clarius in rural areas. The scans are instantly uploaded to the cloud where complex algorithms compare them with numerous other scans to assist in early and accurate detection of breast cancer.

While Malherbe believes AI will never replace doctors, those not using AI will be replaced by doctors who do.

• Steyn is a Smart Automation & Artificial Intelligence thought leader and management consultant. He is the chair of the Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics with the IITPSA (Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA). He writes in his personal capacity.


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