Excerpts from a Technology Review article: A new wave of chatbots are replacing physicians and providing frontline medical advice—but are they as good as the real thing?
“My stomach is killing me!”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” says a female voice. “Are you happy to answer a few questions?”
And so the consultation begins. Where’s the pain? How bad is it? Does it come and go? There’s some deliberation before you get an opinion. “This sounds like dyspepsia to me. Dyspepsia is doctor-speak for indigestion.”
Doctor-speak, maybe, but it’s not a doctor speaking. The female voice belongs to Babylon, part of a wave of new AI apps designed to relieve your doctor of needless paperwork and office visits—and reduce the time you have to wait for medical advice. If you’re feeling unwell, instead of calling a doctor, you use your phone to chat with an AI.
The idea is to make seeking advice about a medical condition as simple as Googling your symptoms, but with many more benefits. Unlike self-diagnosis online, these apps lead you through a clinical-grade triage process—they’ll tell you if your symptoms need urgent attention or if you can treat yourself with bed rest and ibuprofen instead. The tech is built on a grab bag of AI techniques: language processing to allow users to describe their symptoms in a casual way, expert systems to mine huge medical databases, machine learning to string together correlations between symptom and condition.
Babylon Health, a London-based digital-first health-care provider, has a mission statement it likes to share in a big, bold font: to put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth. The best way to do this, says the company’s founder, Ali Parsa, is to stop people from needing to see a doctor.
When in doubt, the apps will always recommend seeking a second, human opinion. But by placing themselves between us and medical professionals, they shift the front line of health care. When the Babylon Health app started giving advice on ways to self-treat, half the company’s patients stopped asking for an appointment, realizing they didn’t need one.
Babylon is not the only app of its kind—others include Ada, Your.MD, and Dr. AI. But Babylon is the front-runner because it’s been integrated with the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), showing how such tech could change the way health services are run and paid for. Last year Babylon started a trial with a hospital trust in London in which calls to the NHS’s non-emergency 111 advice line are handled partly by Babylon’s AI. Callers are asked if they want to wait for a human to pick up or download the Babylon-powered “NHS Online: 111” app instead.
Now Babylon has also co-launched the UK’s first digital doctor’s practice, called GP at Hand. People in London can register with the service as they would with their local doctor. But instead of waiting for an appointment slot and taking time off work to see a physician in person, patients can either chat with the app or talk to a GP at Hand doctor on a video link. And in many cases the call isn’t needed. The human doctor becomes your last resort rather than your first.
Not everyone is happy about all this. For a start, there are safety concerns.
According to Babylon, its chatbot can identify medical conditions as well as human doctors do and give treatment advice that’s safer.
The RCGP was quick to distance itself from Babylon’s hype, however. “The potential of technology to support doctors to deliver the best possible patient care is fantastic, but at the end of the day, computers are computers, and GPs are highly trained medical professionals: the two can’t be compared and the former may support but will never replace the latter,” said RCGP vice chair Martin Marshall in a statement. “No app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does.”
Others level far more serious charges, suggesting that Babylon has focused on making its service accessible and affordable at the expense of patients’ safety.
Still, while Babylon may not be as good as a real doctor (and such apps are always careful to recommend you see a real doctor when in doubt), playing it too safe would defeat the purpose.
Another fear is that digital-first services will create a two-tiered health-care system.
Read the full article: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612267/your-next-doctors-appointment-might-be-with-an-ai/