COVID-19 driving AI adoption across the healthcare industry
As the coronavirus pandemic spread globally, medical professionals became inundated with people contacting their GPs or worse, those coming into Emergency Rooms (ERs) with minor symptoms. The onslaught of panicked people quickly overwhelmed ERs and medical call centres worldwide and forced healthcare organisations to review how their workforce continued delivering care under such difficult circumstances, including finding ways to engage with patients under social distancing guidelines.
The flood of calls and enquiries of concerned people meant that many healthcare professionals had to divert time away from seriously ill patients in order to make (what was largely negative) COVID-19 assessments. As a direct response in dealing with this, medical professionals and administrative hospital staff put many non-urgent consultations on hold and designed systems to triage patients, whilst also creating COVID and COVID-free areas of hospitals to prevent uninfected patients and other hospital workers becoming exposed to the disease. More so than ever before, health systems started rapidly adopting digital and automated solutions to support them in the assessment process, catalysing a monumental shift in the healthcare industry.
The technologies driving this change
There was a critical need for those that were concerned that they had the virus to safely self-assess in order to take this immense pressure of health services that were already being tested to their max. From taking GP appointments by video or voice call to developing screening solutions to spot patients with indicators of the virus at home, a whole host of different solutions have been designed and deployed by tech firms and other start-up businesses repurposing their products to help support overwhelmed healthcare organisations in the fight against COVID-19. This rapid corralling of resources was aimed at trying to reduce person-to-person interaction (and in many cases, successfully did so) in order to ‘flatten the curve’.
Cognitive agents, like Amelia, have been critical in helping healthcare organisations roll-out at-home assessments at scale. Members of the public, whether shielding or self-isolating at home, could reach an AI-powered cognitive healthcare agent by voice call or webchat to undergo a risk assessment, as well as receive additional information about the virus. Once an individual engages with the conversational assistant, they are assessed on the symptoms they are experiencing, alongside additional risk factors (such as underlying health conditions) – which are based on the latest guidance from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The World Health Organization (WHO). This has enabled thousands of vulnerable people to get screened without putting themselves or others in unnecessary danger.
The future of the healthcare industry
What this crisis has clearly demonstrated is that the healthcare industry – a sector that has historically been extremely risk-averse – can become more dynamic through investment in advanced technologies, whilst also making patient services more efficient and safer. Leveraging AI has not only proven to be valuable in patient screening environments during a pandemic, but also in tracking and tracing, managing medical inventory (namely PPE) and in pushing new innovations, such as ventilators capable of giving support to several patients at the same time.
Looking to the future to a post COVID-19 world, within the next few years I expect that both patients and doctors will become more accustomed to interacting with online services and, increasingly, conversational AI-powered assistants.
According to EMIS Group, following the NHS’ introduction of the ‘total triage’ approach to deal with the impact of COVID, online-only consultations now account for approximately 40% of total GP-patient contacts in the UK. And as both healthcare providers and the public acclimatise to accessing digital healthcare services, I believe we’ll see the same shift that we’ve witnessed in customer service of using automation to provide always-on support at scale.
This new patient services model could completely revolutionise healthcare, both for providers and patients. It can not only help filter out unnecessary hospital and GP surgery visits (something which is key in a time of crisis), but might also drive more people to engage with their regular healthcare needs, thanks to ease of use and convenience. This will support the government’s population health objectives, as it will be easier to identify and treat health issues earlier, which in turn can prevent the need for hospitalisation.
That said, there will always be a need for face to face contact in many healthcare settings – so don’t expect robots to take over your local hospital anytime soon.
By Dr Vincent Grasso, Global Healthcare & Life Sciences Lead, IPsoft
Zoom enters the healthcare market - a timeline
Since the pandemic began Zoom has become an integral part of daily life for people working from home, as well as a vital tool for families and friends to communicate. However it's also been eyeing up the healthcare space since 2017, and following the boom in telehealth the company has been rolling out additional services. Here we chart Zoom's move into healthcare.
2011 - 2013
Zoom is founded in San Jose, California, by Eric Yuan, formerly of Cisco. He got the idea to create a video calling platform from his visits to his girlfriend while he was a student, which would take 10 hours by train.
A beta version is released in 2012, which can host up to 15 participants. In 2013 this rises to 25. By mid-2013, Zoom has 1 million users.
2014 - 2017
Zoom attracts investors, including Sequoia Capital, Emergence and Horizon Ventures. By January 2017, Zoom has a series D funding worth $100 million.
2017 - 2019
Zoom for Telehealth launches, including an integration with EHR system Epic. It has cloud-based video, audio, and content sharing features, a "waiting room" for patients, and can easily be integrated into healthcare provider's workflows.
In 2019 Zoom goes public, with its IPO rising 72% in one day.
As a result of the pandemic, Zoom gains 2.2 million new users, more than in the whole of 2019. On the 23rd of March alone - the day the UK lockdown was announced - the platform was downloaded 2.13 million times around the world.
Share prices rise to around $150, and founder and chief executive Eric Yuan becomes one of the world's richest people, with an estimated net worth of $7.9 billion.
Early security issues are addressed by encrypting data with the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). By now the the platform allows 99 people to be on a call simultaneously
New features launch, including Zoom Home and Zoom for Chats. Throughout the year the platform is used to replace most kinds of real life events: work meetings, online classrooms, church services and social events.
Renamed Zoom for Healthcare, users can share secured video, audio, and content through desktops, mobile phones, and conference devices. As well as Epic, it can be integrated with Strmr, IntakeQ, and Practice Better.
It can also be used with diagnostic cameras and other point-of-care devices, including digital stethoscopes.
In an interview with Korea Biomedical Review, Zoom Global Healthcare Lead Ron Emerson said: "Our service is not simply a virtual care and telemedicine platform but a multi-purpose platform that can satisfy the needs of healthcare institutions."
"It can be used for administrative tasks, including telemedicine, medical team meetings, recruitment, medical education, employee training, and disease prevention. Analysing electronic records managed by Zoom could provide meaningful insights into patient care."
Phoenix Children's Hospital, Belfast's Hospital Services Limited, Butler Health Services and the global Project ECHO are among Zoom for Healthcare's current customers.