Artificial Intelligence Coming Big Way in Healthcare Sector

Brig (Hony) Arvind Lal

Brig Arvind Lal, CMD of Dr Lal Path Labs, is a pioneer in bringing laboratory services in India at par with the western world. In 1977, he took charge of the medical diagnostics laboratory founded in 1949 by his late father. Under his expert guidance and leadership, the initiative has become one of the most reputed laboratories in Asia, having to its credit quality accreditations from various national and international bodies.

The critical care environment has undergone significant alterations in the past several years. This has happened because our lifestyles in the fast-paced lives of modern India are ensuring that most people, in the age group of 30-50 years are falling prey to life-threatening cardiac diseases and strokes, in addition to diabetes, hypertension, cancers, liver, kidney and lung diseases – these diseases being called Non-Communicable Diseases or NCDs. They are now responsible for killing more than 65% of our population says Dr Arvind Lal, known for his diagnostic labs across the country.

Flagging concerns on such trends, these patients need high-cost intensive care, be it for complications of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, hypertension, cancer or lung diseases. This is where the importance of Point-of-care testing (POCT) comes in. It helps in almost diagnosing the patient instantly and improves the physician’s ability to take immediate corrective action and decreases hospital stay. One such test is Troponin – that has revolutionized cardiac care by diagnosing heart attacks or myocardial infarction.

This article is based on the keynote address on the occasion of 2nd Annual International InnoHEALTH Conference 2017 – ‘Transforming Healthcare Through Innovation’ in New Delhi, said there are numerous promising diagnostic technologies. The key message is that in a country where 70% of the population lives in rural surroundings, ‘it is our duty to rapidly adopt disruptive innovative affordable technologies including telemedicine. Thus, our underserved population would be able to avail of the best treatment possible and bring in massive visible change’. He said the importance of bringing quality healthcare needs no reminder and the time has come for India to change the direction of healthcare for the masses.

Healthcare is a right – and access to good healthcare should not depend on where one lives and how much he or she earns. But sadly, that is exactly what plagues India’s healthcare today, he lamented. India faces a severe shortage of both hard infrastructure and talent. With about one doctor and one functional bed per 1000 population, healthcare is truly underserved in India. Add to this the regional imbalances and variations in healthcare delivery. The healthcare infrastructure is skewed towards urban over rural India.

diabetes test

Although rural India accounts for about 70% of the population, it has less than one-third of the nation’s hospitals, doctors and beds, resulting in large disparities in health outcomes across urban and rural India. British Medical Journal (BMJ) has observed that there is a remarkable saving of lives in India if good healthcare facilities consisting of operation theatres, surgeons, anaesthetists, blood banks are available within 50 kilometres of the patient providing quality medical services within the ‘golden hour’.

Though there has been a sea change in the last five decades, India now needs to reinvent the field of diagnostics as laboratory tests are responsible for 70% of all clinical or medical decisions.

In today’s life where internet rules the roost, the patients have become very knowledgeable, thanks to the globalisation of healthcare, and are demanding very high-quality healthcare for themselves. They are insisting on a very wholesome and satisfying experience rather than being told that the ‘treatment is over’.

Soon, a time will come when the tests shall be ordered by the patients based on clinical history and clinical findings that shall be answered by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) application. Artificial intelligence has already found several areas in healthcare from the design of treatment plans to assist in repetitive jobs to medication management and drug designing. The most obvious application of artificial intelligence in healthcare is data management. Collecting it, storing it, normalizing it, tracing its lineage – it may well be the first step in revolutionizing the existing healthcare systems.

Recently, the AI research branch of the search giant, Google, launched its Google Deepmind Health project, which is used to mine the data of medical records in order to provide better and faster health services. The project is in its initial phase, and at present, they are working with Moorfields Eye Hospital of NHS Foundation Trust, UK to improve eye treatment.

Just a few years ago the patient after giving the sample used to come back in the evening to the lab to collect a physical copy of the test report. This was replaced by making the report available on the internet that could be downloaded by the patient in the comfort of his home. These days this has been further replaced by making available an App on his mobile phone wherein he can book an appointment for the sample to be collected at home and the report being later available on the same mobile App.

‘IBM Watson, whose headquarters I had the privilege of visiting a few months back in the Silicon Valley, is an AI-based engine that has launched its special program for oncologists to provide clinicians evidence-based treatment options. The program has an advanced ability to analyze the meaning and context of structured and unstructured data in clinical notes and reports in its encyclopedic memory that may be critical to selecting a treatment pathway’. IBM launched another algorithm called Medical Sieve. It is an ambitious long-term exploratory project to build a next-generation ‘cognitive health assistant’ that is able to analyze radiology images to spot and detect abnormalities faster and more reliably. This shall help radiologists in the future to look at the most complicated cases where human supervision is essential.

‘Wearable Tech is another area which I am personally very excited about. It has the potential to change the world as it helps people understand their own bodies by using mass data collected on a daily basis. From fitness bands to smartwatches to eye based wearables, they are being adopted widely. Take the case of Zephyr’s Anywhere Bio Patch which is an FDA-approved, small device that is attached to a patient’s chest and monitors their vitals minute-by-minute and collects medical-grade data for doctors’ use. These devices will connect our organs digitally, enabling disease detection at very early stages. It has the potential to bring down cardiac and other deaths drastically. This offers immense potential to do remote testing, monitoring and thus assisting the doctor in timely treatment’.

Point of Care Testing: Technological advancements in laboratory automation, including POCT, and initiatives to increase patient satisfaction are transforming the clinical laboratory market. POCT has come a long way from a handful of simple tests to a multibillion-dollar global market that holds great promise for the future. Not so long ago, laboratory data would often arrive at the bedside too late to be of significant use in the active, continuing care of critically ill patients. Now, most clinicians acknowledge that POCT is a prerequisite for early recognition of life-threatening conditions as they require that laboratory results are made available in real-time and, if possible, at the critically ill patient’s point of care. The College of American Pathologists defines POCT as tests designed to be used at or near the site where the patient is located, that do not require permanent dedicated space, and that are performed outside the physical facilities of the clinical laboratories.

Examples include kits and instruments that are hand-carried or transported to the vicinity of the patient for immediate testing at that site (e.g. capillary blood glucose) or analytical instruments that are temporarily brought to a patient care location (like operating room, intensive care unit). In many cases, the simplicity was not achievable until technologies developed that was simple and affordable. For example, various kinds of urine test strips have been available for decades, but portable ultrasonography did not reach the stage of being advanced, affordable and widespread until recently. Similarly, pulse oximetry can test arterial oxygen saturation in a quick, simple, non-invasive, affordable way today, but in earlier eras, this required an intra-arterial needle puncture and a laboratory test. Thus, over decades, testing continues to move toward the point of care.

The lab-on-a-chip (LOC) is another device that integrates one or several laboratory functions on a single integrated circuit (commonly called a “chip”) of only a few square centimetres to achieve automation and high throughput screening. Imagine that a patient comes to one of our 2,100 collection centres in the remote tier three or tier four towns in India with the high fever. We take a drop of blood from his finger and inform the clinician almost immediately that the patient is suffering from Chikungunya and not from Malaria or Typhoid, or Dengue fever or Japanese Encephalitis – all in a matter of minutes! The driving notion behind POCT is to bring the test conveniently and immediately to the patient. Needless to add, the patient’s data by POCT shall be made available to update the patient’s electronic health records (EHR).

Talking about POCT Instruments: Currently, two broad type of POCT instruments are available: Small benchtop analyzers (for example, blood gas and electrolyte systems) and handheld, single-use devices (such as urine albumin, blood glucose, and coagulation tests). Now let us talk about if POCT is Boon or Bane? The strong point of POCT is speed and the rapidity with which it shall save lives in emergencies. As India marches towards quality healthcare delivery, in course of time regulatory compliances shall have to be adhered to in the interest of the patient’s health.

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