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AI is ready to change the future of dermatology — are you?

Technology is creating seismic shifts in how doctors diagnose and treat patients. Here’s what this will mean for doctors in the future.
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Martin Holm Jensen, Former Head of AI & Machine Learning

Societies and industries across the globe are adopting new technologies at breakneck speed. In each of these instances, humans are faced with a fundamental dilemma — if machines are able to do our jobs, what does that mean for us?

Nowhere is this debate more prevalent than within healthcare, which right now finds itself at a digital crossroad. But in a sector with the lowest possible margin for error (after all, mistakes could cost lives), doctors are, understandably, inching cautiously towards change.

But change is needed if we are to address the increasing pressure on our healthcare systems. As AI-technologies continue to grow more and more sophisticated, adopting this tech in dermatology can vastly improve patient care in the future — if we let it.

The problems facing dermatology

One of the key problems within the future of healthcare is the immense shortage of healthcare workers — something that’s happening at a global level. In fact, the World Health Organisation has estimated that there’ll be a shortage of almost 13 million healthcare workers by 2035.

Within dermatology, this problem is already evident. To take the UK as one example; according to a survey by the British Skin Foundation60% of the British population currently suffer or have suffered from a skin condition at some point in their lives. Despite this rate, there are just 650 dermatologists for a population of 66 million. That’s one dermatologist for over 100,000 people. It’s no wonder then that in the UK, a doctor has contact with an average of 41.5 patients a day.

What these figures demonstrate is an immense and growing pressure on our healthcare professionals. Physicians are overburdened and don’t have time to see the many patients who need ongoing support. This lack of time ultimately affects quality of care and causes patients not to see a doctor at all.

And this is precisely where technology can help.

Scaling care despite HCP shortage

Technology has the potential to relieve the mounting pressure on doctors by providing tools to more accurately diagnose diseases, choose the right treatments, and help patients better manage their condition.

Already we’re seeing a global shift towards digital solutions such as telemedicine with huge positive effects. In China, for example, around 2% of all consultations take place online, amounting to 1 billion consultations a year where access to a doctor is only a tap away. China’s leading online healthcare platform Ping An Good Doctor takes the strength of the human doctor and tech advancements by combining artificial intelligence with online medical consultations. The AI-system analyses the data available on the patient from preliminary human-computer interactions before transferring it to the doctor thereby optimising the consultation with the patient.

We see a similar trend in Sweden with the telemedicine solution KRY that allows patients and doctors to connect through the smartphone. Roughly 3% of all consultation are already taking place online in Sweden, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

In particular within dermatology, teledermatologic consultations offer the promise of reducing referrals to a dermatologist by 20.7% thereby also reducing the waiting time for patients and improving the access to much-needed care.

These shifts are essential if we are to alleviate the pressure on our healthcare professionals and ensure patients have access to face-to-face consultations when they need to.

Improving HCP satisfaction

HCP-satisfaction suffers when patients feel they don’t have adequate access or time with the person in charge of their care. This is largely because people feel disenfranchised from their own care. Outside of the consultation room, many people feel unable to actively influence their condition in a meaningful way.

Of course, every physician wants to see their patients disease-free; however, in practical terms, the most important thing is simply how people perceive their treatment. Whether a treatment is working or not matters much less to the individual patient than how happy they are with their care plan.

But countries worldwide are facing a big challenge. With the growing burden of an aging population and with chronic conditions on the rise, the countries must balance the cost of care with the increasing demands on the healthcare systems. One solution is to tap into the patient herself by activating her vested interest in her own care.

Technology assists in our ability to put patients into a more active role within their disease management, which positively affects overall patient satisfaction. With digital solutions like the skin tracking app Imagine app, for example, it’s never been easier to make patients more actively involved in their care, and to help them understand their disease better.

Alongside manual trackers like Imagine, wearable technology will further enable doctors to monitor their patients’ progress in real-time to see if treatments are actually working.

Potentially, this could mean that care plans could be adjusted remotely, without the need for follow-up consultations. This not only serves to provide better and quicker patient care, but also to alleviate the issues caused by a growing lack of HCPs. By integrating tech solutions in healthcare, such as AI in imaging, we can create value and insights in between consultations thereby removing some of the strain on specialists and patients by optimising the use of consultations.

A future without doctors?

The simple fact of the matter is that people want to see people — not computers. Artificial intelligence will therefore not replace doctors but rather put them in a stronger position to provide the care that patients need.

The empathy and social intelligence that a good doctor provides is not something we can have machines do (or certainly not for the foreseeable future). Doctors should be reassured that new digital tools will be assistants, not replacements. We need to fundamentally shift our perception from thinking about this not as artificial intelligence, but augmented intelligence.

Even though AI has the possibility of radically shifting the world of medicine, this can’t be done without humans. This isn’t a question of man vs. machine, but man with machine.

The digital solutions that work the best are those that combine AI and human beings to address pain points in the medical treatment process that are time consuming, costly and ineffective.

We therefore believe that collaboration between humans and technology is the ultimate response. That’s why we in LEO Innovation Lab look to train our algorithms to behave like humans.

Encouraging digital readiness

Healthcare is a challenging area to implement transformative changes such as the introduction of new technologies that will influence the work of doctors. People are naturally adverse to change — especially when it comes to something as sensitive their health. But all signs point to the fact that the current system needs support.

From a patient’s perspective, continuously having the wrong diagnosis is incredibly frustrating. If, as a consumer, you kept getting wrong advice or the wrong product — you wouldn’t accept it. Healthcare is no different. Doctors need to think of their patients’ satisfaction in the same way we think about that of a consumer, and to try and meet their demands and needs in new ways.

We’re already seeing promising results when physicians are supported by a digital solution. For example, in one study we conducted in Hamburg, the overall diagnostic accuracy of general practitioners was improved by 34% with the aid of a digital clinical decision support system. As imaging technology continues to become more sophisticated, we’ll be able to clearly demonstrate just how beneficial digital tools can be in helping doctors to do their work even better. Over time, this will help to encourage digital readiness within healthcare.

Perhaps at a more fundamental level, digital readiness will happen when government policy forces it to do so. We’ve already seen this with the shift to digital records. Many doctors were averse to having digital records but when governments enforced it, transformative changes happened. A similar shift will happen with other digital solutions in time.

AI-technology to augment doctors and empower patients

In the very near future, patients will have a much more thorough and complete picture of their data points. They won’t just have a diagnosis but a holistic overview of their health. The impact of this remains to be seen within dermatology.

But one thing is certain: the doctors of tomorrow will be able to do more with less for people across the globe irrespective of their location or income. That shift alone will be life-altering to millions of people.

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