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“Visit” the AI-powered health robot

Could AI soon be giving a helping hand to India’s doctors?

This seemed the stuff of science fiction until recently when Twitter co-founder Biz Stone invested in a Delhi-based artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chatbot “Visit”.  The chatbot was developed by students from Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) in Pilani, Rajasthan with the intention of assisting in medical diagnosis.

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Could robotics be the future of healthcare?

The chatbot is not intended to be replace doctors, but enhance medical services by acting as a robotic assistant.

The chatbot is intended to be a patient’s first point of contact, capable of asking questions related to the patient’s symptoms. The chatbot is programmed to recognise 20,000 probabilistic relationships between variables including conditions, symptoms, risk factors, past history and more. This will allow the chatbot to assess the variables and ask follow-up questions to determine the most likely cause of the illness. Following this, the chatbot is directed to contact one of the 2,000 healthcare specialists around India.

India currently suffers from severe shortages of specialist medical staff, particularly in rural environments. Across India’s 5,510 community health centres in rural areas, there are shortfalls of 84 percent for surgeons; 76.7 percent for obstetricians and gynaecologists; 83.2 percent for general physicians; and 80.1 percent for paediatricians, as of the 2016 Rural Health Statistics report.

This may cause issues with the implementation of the AI chatbot, as the 2,000 specialists associated with the programme would be unable to handle a national rollout of the project. A more localised rollout may be accommodated by these numbers, but this is unlikely to provide any benefits to rural areas, which are lagging behind their urban counterparts in terms of healthcare infrastructure.

In theory, however, the chatbot could free up time for existing doctors by optimising diagnostics. A study in the British Medical Journal found that the average time a doctor in India at the primary care level spends with a patient is just two minutes. This leaves very little time for diagnosis, followed by insights from the doctor. This could leave many patients leaving no more informed on their condition than when they entered.

By delegating the task of diagnosis to the chatbot would allow for this often time consuming aspect of a medical diagnosis to be performed in a waiting room before the patient sees the doctor. This would then allow the doctor a better degree of information when first meeting the patient, focusing their limited time on treatment options and informing the patient.

“Accessibility to quality health advice is an overwhelming problem in a country with over 200 million people affected by lifestyle problems like stress, chronic conditions, obesity, skin conditions, and more. This is where the technology approach by aVisit’ comes in” said Stone. By improving doctor-patient interactions and better educating the patients, improvements to treatment adherence and management of risk factors of non-communicable conditions could be greatly improved.

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