Time for MoH to tap into AI for healthcare

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Malaysia definitely could benefit from integrating AI into its public healthcare, especially to ensure the rakyat receives rapid treatments and accurate medical diagnosis.

During Budget 2023 which was tabled last week but has since been suspended, the Health Ministry received a budget increase of RM3.7 billion to RM36.1 billion compared with last year. It is also among the highest recipients of government allocation after the Finance and Education Ministries. Kudos to the Government for its continued priority to healthcare.

The increase in allocation comes at a time when the country’s healthcare is picking up the pieces after being battered by the Covid-19 pandemic. But there’s also a silver lining from the pandemic in that it has forced us in the medical fraternity, including policy-makers in the Health Ministry, to build a more resilient and sustainable healthcare system.

Part of the additional allocation from Budget 2023 for healthcare should be used towards making our healthcare more resilient and robust.

The reality is that during Covid-19, our healthcare system nearly collapsed due to the overwhelming pressure placed on the healthcare workers as well as clinical burnout.

Indeed, many healthcare “frontliners” suffered damage to their own physical or mental health, or even lost their lives. It should not have been like this and must not be if and when we confront the next pandemic—technology provides us the means how.

For instance, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be used to reshape how our hospitals and clinics respond to our healthcare needs with faster and more accurate solutions. The automation such systems provide can help change clinical workflows and operational processes, taking pressure off staff.

AI can even be used to predict everything from staff handling and triage at emergency department to proposing a range of effective treatments for women who develop breast cancers.

AI provides the biggest promise in healthcare by fully automating repetitive tasks and as a tool to help health professionals for their peak performances.

How does it do this? AI in healthcare is simply an umbrella term used to describe machine learning (ML) algorithms and other cognitive technologies such as natural language processing (NLP) and deep learning (DL) in medical settings. Computers or machines mimic human cognition in learning, making decisions, analysing and acting based on the collected medical knowledge.

This could assist doctors and medical providers to deliver more accurate diagnoses, treatment plans as well as preventive care recommendations for patients.

AI can also help to detect diseases such as cancer more accurately in its early stages, predict and track the spread of infectious diseases as well as combatting epidemics and pandemics.

This does not mean that machines are set to replace actual healthcare workers anytime soon. At this juncture, it is most effective —and still tremendously useful—in doing things that humans are simply not naturally good at, such as sifting through massive amounts of data quickly for information that might be missed otherwise.

At the same time, AI can assist in revolutionizing care for our ageing population through humanoid robots for the elderly. These can provide customised care, including from helping them to remain independent, to providing assisted living at nursing homes, hospice care and palliative care.  AI algorithms will even be able to identify new drug research and discoveries.

There are of course some challenges. For one thing, AI is not free from algorithm bias. It can do a great many things but ultimately is only as good as its creators are. Hence, it is important for designers and healthcare providers to think proactively when developing and implementing AI by taking strategic actions to minimize such risks.

Ultimately, AI is supposed to help, rather than hurt us. A balance must be struck between the interests of public health and privacy—something policymakers and legislators must deliberate deeply upon.

Nevertheless, Malaysia definitely could benefit from integrating AI into its public healthcare, especially to ensure the rakyat receives rapid treatments and accurate medical diagnosis.

This isn’t really something new. The MySejahtera app for instance was crucial in getting millions of Malaysians their Covid-19 vaccine jabs. Perhaps the time has come to see if consumer wearables such as the Apple Watch, Garmin watches or XiaoMi watches can be tied into the national healthcare app in order to keep the rakyat healthy through the 10,000 step counts and also to monitor their heart rates. Bringing AI to healthcare would certainly be a major boost to achieving the MyDIGITAL’s initiative.

The views expressed here are strictly those of Dr Rasaselvam A/L Munusamy (MBBS) from Balik Pulau, Penang.