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AI in health care: Capacity, capability, and a future of active health in Asia

October 14, 2019
To address a critical gap in health-care resources, the region is becoming a center of innovation in health-care artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation.

Software and platforms powered by AI are expected to transform Asia’s health-care landscape in the decade ahead, allowing health-care providers and government health-care authorities to increase capacity of service delivery, speed of diagnoses, quality of care, and overall patient health outcomes. The use of AI cannot be described as entirely nascent; indeed, it is already being widely used—particularly in developed Asia. Yet new use cases, new innovations, and new centers of AI adoption are emerging constantly, and the continuing urgency by governments and tech players to diffuse AI across health-care ecosystems will bring untold benefits to patients’ lives across the region.

Here are the key findings of this report:

AI is efficiently narrowing Asia’s health-care gap. AI is an important and pragmatic solution for increasing the capacity and efficiency of health-care provision across the region. Health-care resources in many countries are strained, chiefly due to a dearth of human capital—the World Health Organization estimates that Asia will require over 12 million new professionals by 2030, an increase of over 70% from current levels. Spending is another challenge. Outside of developed Asian economies, health expenditure per capita is less than a quarter of OECD levels. Against this backdrop there is a growing set of success cases in using AI to boost the productivity and accuracy of medical staff. 

The region is benefiting from the increased capacity of front-line health-care staff. This includes guiding doctors through diagnostic processes to arrive at treatment decisions with greater speed and certainty; using machine learning to analyze increasingly sophisticated medical images to diagnose a wide range of common and rare diseases, often with greater accuracy than humans; and wearable health-tracking technology to support patients in maintaining wellness, and doctors in spotting risks and warning signs.

Machine-human interaction is growing specialist skills across the region. AI will drive Asia’s health-care practitioners, particularly in advanced economies, towards a higher set of skills and greater ability to work alongside technology. These include robot-assisted surgeries, highly accurate diagnoses of detailed medical images, and new drug development. However, since much of the region’s health-care system is chronically overstretched and limited in its ability to provide the basics, some observers advocate focusing AI resources on first empowering primary health care.

Asia’s highest health burdens are fertile ground for public-private sector collaboration. In several Asian countries there are examples of different stakeholders collaborating to tackle a pernicious medical challenge while leveraging local skills and talent, or data resources. Aging is rapidly becoming one of Asia’s leading health-care crises; Japan is currently in the lead for its share of the population aged over 65 (nearly a third), but several of the region’s other economies are close behind and carefully watching the emerging innovations in elder care. Other health-care burdens where AI is playing a leading role are infant mortality in India and hyperglycemia, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension in Singapore. Over the coming decades, policymakers and AI developers will increasingly collaborate to improve public health. 

Preventive strategies will come to the forefront of health care. In the future, health-care ecosystems will emphasize wellness and well-being over curative care. AI will take a leading role in promoting “active health,” as this trend is being called, by identifying disease markers and generating intelligence on susceptibility to any number of health conditions. The data will allow individuals to take control of their lifestyles and medical treatment, and proactively improve their health. Wearables and AI technology are converging to create new capabilities and deeper insights.

Health-care systems must remain human-centric. The increasing contribution of technology to medical decision-making is undoubtedly a benefit to countless patients across Asia, yet it is ethically imperative that technology maintain a supporting role to the expertise of human doctors and practitioners. Final decision-making responsibility must continue to lie with humans, to guarantee accountability in the health-care system. AI developers should focus on making sure that AI is explainable and understandable both by doctors and patients, so that recipients and users of AI can continue to trust it and welcome it into their care.