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AI in healthcare: The coming expansion

AI in healthcare concept. Surgery performed by robotic arm 3d renderingThe application of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare is one of the most significant trends to have emerged in digital health in recent years. New projections suggest the sector can expect significant growth in the next few years. By 2026, forecasters have said AI-based healthcare will be worth US$8 billion – a growth of 49.7 percent from 2019. The Asia Pacific region is expected to drive this growth. 

This projection is not even the most optimistic forecast for AI in healthcare. In February, Global Markets Insight said that the sector could surpass US$13 billion by 2025. Growth estimates notwithstanding, it is undeniable that AI is becoming an ever more integral part of healthcare delivery the world over. India is no exception to this trend. 

Health Issues India has reported in the past on numerous cases of AI-powered innovations, ranging from a wearable glove with the ability to detect seizures in those with epilepsy to therapeutic devices to help manage conditions like diabetes. Applications have even been developed wherein AI-powered robots can act as virtual assistants for doctors or even display diagnostic abilities with similar degrees of accuracy as medical professionals.

The Union Health Ministry is planning to capitalise upon these trends, exploring ways to integrate AI into the public health system. “The potential of AI in public health is being explored in our country. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) is working towards using AI in a safe and effective way in public health in India,” Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan told Lok Sabha MPs today. He stated that the government’s think tank Niti Aayog is exploring applications of AI in addressing cancer and diabetic retinopathy. 

AI, and digital health more broadly, carries the potential to bridge the accessibility gap plaguing India’s healthcare system which experiences shortages of both human resources and infrastructure. For example, applications like telemedicine (if properly regulated) could enable patients to obtain consultations and options for disease treatment and management who otherwise would struggle to do so. This is particularly true of rural areas where the inaccessibility of healthcare is most pronounced. 

AI-based diagnostic tools can ameliorate the impact of medical personnel shortages, enabling doctors to allocate their time more effectively and potentially allowing greater efficiency and expediency. In terms of patient outcomes, access to such diagnostics could lead to earlier diagnoses and limit the potential for complications if the disease goes undiagnosed and progresses to a more advanced stage that is more difficult to treat.

It is clear that digital innovations such as AI-based technologies have a significant role to play, integrated within the existing healthcare system and enabling it to become more robust and capable of responding to patient needs. “Adding infrastructure and medical professionals alone will not be able to solve India’s huge unmet needs in healthcare. It needs to be supported by technology,” stated Charu Shegal, Deloitte India’s life sciences and healthcare leader. “Effective and innovative use of medical technology, has the potential of increasing access, significantly reducing the burden of disease and the load on healthcare delivery services through early diagnosis, better clinical outcomes, less invasive procedures and shorter recovery times.”

As swathes of regions enjoy greater digital penetration and greater availability of tools like smartphones, the potential of AI in healthcare is becoming ever more pronounced. With the Asia Pacific region driving its projected growth, India has an opportunity to harness this potential and build towards accomplishing the objective of “Health for All”. 

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