Interview: How AI in the hands of doctors is transforming medicine's landscape

Doctors & AI are a powerful duo. While computers can process volumes of information better & faster than any human, doctors bring the expertise, nuance & instinct that no machine can replicate. When used together, doctors & AI’s complementary strengths can pioneer a new era of patient-centric care. 

CEO of Healthbridge, Luis da Silva explains, “AI will never replace doctors, but doctors who make use of AI will be able to work more efficiently & help more patients, than those who don’t.” As a leading provider of healthcare technology, Luis continues to say that in a country grappling with a scarcity of healthcare professionals & the imminent challenge of providing quality healthcare for all, the rise of AI-assisted medicine is inevitable.  

In this interview, Luis shares his insights into how & why we should integrate AI for smarter healthcare. 

Overcoming Doctor Shortages & Optimising Skill Utilisation

The scarcity of healthcare professionals, especially doctors, is a global concern. “In South Africa, we are working with a doctor-to-patient ratio of 0.32 to 1,000 which is well below international standards,” Luis explains. He goes on to say that while in demand, many GPs find themselves stuck in a routine of diagnosing a handful of common illnesses, which is a gross underutilisation of their skills & expertise. 

“AI can serve as a powerful tool to address both these challenges. By leveraging AI, doctors can diagnose cases more rapidly & accurately. This can help alleviate their workload & allow them to focus on complex cases that require their expertise.” Luis reiterates that AI’s ability to analyse vast amounts of medical data & research can offer valuable clinical decision support to doctors & thereby elevate the quality of care.

Revolutionising Diagnostics & Medicines Management with AI

AI’s potential to revolutionize healthcare becomes particularly evident when it comes to diagnostics & medicines management. Computers can process enormous amounts of medical images, pathology results & medical records. This can expedite medical research, pharmaceutical R&D & the discovery & treatment of time-sensitive rare diseases. 

On a primary healthcare level, AI systems can act as co-pilots for doctors to significantly accelerate the diagnostic process. Whether we are talking about a private medical practice in an urban area, or a rural primary care clinic run by nurses, AI algorithms can be used as a symptom checker for patients & in the pre-screening process. This alleviates the burden of volume on doctors while augmenting the level of accuracy that they can diagnose at,” Luis shared. 

“At Healthbridge, we are actively using AI to support doctors in the prescribing & dispensing of medicines. Our Clinical software incorporates SmartMeds which is a tool that automatically provides a short list of suggested medicines & related doses to treating doctors,” Luis says. 

He goes on to explain that after analysing volumes of prescription data, SmartMeds works by suggesting appropriate medicines based on the diagnosis, patient demographics, contraindications with the patient’s existing medication, as well as the medical scheme & doctor’s preferences. “This alleviates the enormous complexity inherent in prescribing & the pressure on doctors to commit this information to memory – a superhuman capability afforded to very few. SmartMeds makes prescribing simpler for the doctor and safer for the patient – all with the help of AI,” Luis says. 

Navigating the Challenges of National Health Insurance

In principle, NHI is a worthy & necessary change to an inequitable health system, but its long-term affordability & the availability of resources are, understandably, in question. So, how can AI bring about the reality of NHI? 

“Without delving into the finer details of NHI’s rollout, AI presents a practical mechanism to optimise the allocation of resources & enhance overall efficiency. AI’s capabilities extend beyond assisting doctors. Healthcare professionals like primary care nurses & pharmacists can also receive real-time clinical decision support. We can then ensure that patients are triaged accurately & those in critical condition receive prompt medical attention. In this way, AI-driven systems can optimise patient flow, reduce waiting times & further augment the capacity of skilled healthcare professionals,” Luis replies. 

“Taking it one step further, by using AI to assist in diagnosis & treatment planning, the healthcare system can potentially reduce costs associated with misdiagnoses & unnecessary procedures. Those factors will make a reasonable contribution to the sustainability of NHI,” continues Luis. 

Empowering Patients for Better Health Outcomes

There isn’t a healthcare system in the world that can sustainably meet the growing demand for care. Lifestyle & chronic diseases continue to put significant pressure on already overburdened, often fragile, health systems. 

“AI’s impact on healthcare doesn’t end with professionals; it extends to the patients themselves. It’s one of the ways that the integration of AI into healthcare can be so transformative. The proliferation of wearable devices & health monitoring technologies, patients are empowered & sometimes incentivised to make informed, healthy lifestyle choices,” Luis explains before sharing his own metrics & why he made the decision not to go running at 4am that morning.   

“As with anything healthcare-related, prevention is better than cure. Giving patients the tools to actively participate in their own well-being is a powerful step toward preventive medicine & patient-centred care. In the long run, this is how the current system or NHI can achieve better overall outcomes & reduced healthcare costs, ultimately leading to sustainability,” concludes Luis. 

What’s Next in the AI Revolution of Healthcare? 

With the potential of AI in healthcare being so vast, from assisting doctors in diagnosing complex cases to optimising patient care & even empowering patients to take control of their health, AI offers solutions to some of healthcare’s most pressing challenges. What are the next steps to harness this undeniably powerful tool? 

“Using AI to its full potential will inevitably bring about change to a very established system and change can be scary. It’s a natural human tendency to fear the unknown but these emerging technologies give us the opportunity to leapfrog over many of our existing problems & therefore can’t be ignored. Not by policymakers, the public or private sector, medical insurers, or providers at every level of healthcare,” Luis says. 

Luis goes on to say that there will come a time in the near future when we will need robust structures & controls in place that govern the use of AI – not restrict it – but guide its use to ensure that we are truly using it to address the scarcity of healthcare professionals & ensure the safety of patients. 

He concludes by saying: “As we embrace the power of AI, we stand on the cusp of a new era in healthcare, where technology & human expertise converge to create more equitable access to healthcare & hopefully, a healthier population overall.”