Could A.I. Solve The Human Resources Crisis In Healthcare?
About 17.4 million – that’s the number of healthcare workers who are missing from the medical sector globally. The human resources crisis in healthcare is a burning issue, but with the aging and burn-out of physicians on the one hand, and the continuous rise in chronic diseases, on the other hand, it will even get worse year by year. Could artificial intelligence give a helping hand to doctors and ease the burden on healthcare systems? The Medical Futurist Institute published a paper that says it’s possible, but first, we need to tackle a range of ethical and legal questions.
A global health workforce shortage is imminent…
Experts are pessimistic when it comes to the human resources situation in healthcare. There are worrying tendencies about the off-balance of supply and demand of medical professionals. According to The Medical Futurist Institute, the needs-based shortage of healthcare workers globally is about 17.4 million. That’s almost the entire population of Chile and twice as many as living in Austria or Israel.
The WHO’s Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030 reports that shortages can mount up to 9.9 million physicians, nurses and midwives globally by 2030. The U.S. could see a lack of up to 120,000 physicians by 2030, according to a report published in April 2018 by the Association of American Medical Colleges. In the next 10-12 years, Southeast Asia will need approximately 4.7 million more health workers to achieve sufficient coverage, while the Western Pacific zone, which includes regional heavyweights such as China, South Korea, and Japan, will be missing roughly 1.4 million people. The situation is not an inch better in Europe: the continent may be facing a shortage of 1 million health professionals by 2020, according to a European Union Joint Action on Health Workforce Planning estimate.
… while populations are growing, aging and suffer from more chronic diseases
The number of the Earth’s human inhabitants is increasing day by day. The World Population Counter says that there are three times more births than deaths on a given day, while more than 7.6 billion people populate the Earth at the moment. That’s an insanely growing number.
At the same time, life expectancy is widening, and populations are aging. According to data from World Population Prospects: the 2017 Revision, the number of older persons — those aged 60 years or over — is expected to more than double by 2050 and to more than triple by 2100, rising from 962 million globally in 2017 to 2.1 billion in 2050 and 3.1 billion in 2100.
At the same time, the need for healthcare services is rising: illnesses are becoming easier to catch, civilizational diseases such as diabetes and obesity are on the rise while aging societies need more and more care.
These statistics not only shed light on the large amplitude of the problem but also the widening gap between supply and demand. Thus, the healthcare workforce crisis is due to aging populations and a higher need for chronic care, the worldwide doctor shortage – and the aging and burnout of physicians themselves.
Some countries experiment with increasing the number of medical students and making their healthcare systems more attractive. For example, Singapore accepted 110 more students in its medical training in 2015 than before. The government has also made an effort to attract Singaporeans who are midway through their medical studies abroad to return to work in the country; it offered to pay up to S$50,000 a year for their final three years of education, in return, they had to work in a public hospital for three to four years, which included their training year as housemen.
However, in the long run, such incentives might not be enough to attract people to the medical profession as the amount of work will increase in parallel with the HR crisis. That’s the point where digital technology, more specifically artificial intelligence might come and save the day.
Artificial narrow intelligence could support physicians’ jobs
In its study, The Medical Futurist Institute argues that ANI has the highest chance of being used in the medical practice for analyzing large datasets, finding new correlations and generally supporting caregivers’ jobs. AI-based services could facilitate more accurate diagnoses, administration, decision-making, big data analytics, post-graduate education, among others.
Smart algorithms could assist medical professionals in designing treatment plans and finding the best-suited methods for every patient. They can take over repetitive, monotonous tasks, so physicians and nurses can concentrate on their actual jobs instead of, e.g. fighting the tread-wheel of bureaucracy. In the future, as in the brilliant movie, Her, cognitive assistants could prioritize e-mails in doctors’ inboxes or keep them up-to-date with the help of finding the latest and most relevant scientific studies in seconds. Moreover, its transformative power makes it as essential as the stethoscope, the symbol of modern medicine, which appeared in the 19th century.
By all means, we need to emphasize that practicing medicine is not a linear process. Not every single element and parameter can be translated into a programming language – but there are areas where ANI could definitely improve patient outcomes and ease the burden on medical staff.
Unfortunately, ANI is no wonder weapon, and many challenges will arise from technology. On the one hand, there is the financial burden: the cost of disruptive technologies might be too high for underdeveloped countries, pushing them further behind in improving healthcare.
On the other hand, many technical and ethical questions pop up. What elements of physicians’ repetitive tasks, such as note taking or administrative duties could AI ease, and which ones such as diagnosis, treatment or monitoring could it facilitate? Who is responsible if an AI-assisted medical decision causes harm to a patient? Most doctors use online tools to help with research. Is there really a difference when it comes to using AI? Should AI be handled as another tool, such as a stethoscope or as an individual entity?
On the patients’ side, will they stick to the human touch when shortages simply do not give them a chance to meet a physician in person for every medical issue? What if AI algorithms can mimic empathy either through an app or a chatbot? It’s not yet known whether they will accept the use of AI in decision-making and learn its use in their care.
On the level of society, will it help shift focus from treatment to prevention? Will AI increase the cost of care? Might doctors and medical professionals become more efficient, because AI handles some of the time-consuming tasks? Will doctors provide better care in underdeveloped regions with the use of AI? And generally, how will it (if at all) change the current structures of insurance policies?
In sum, artificial intelligence could become a powerful tool to ease the human resources crisis in healthcare. That does not mean it will replace medical professionals, it rather entails the support of healthcare jobs as well as making up for the lack of workforce. But before that happens, many financial, technical and ethical questions need to be sorted out adequately. We hope that’ll happen sooner than later.
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