Event summary, My City-Lab Talk Series, /

The latest meeting of the My City-Lab Talk Series “AI in Outbreak Management” took place on 10 June 2020. The event was organised by Health First Europe, as a partner of My City-Lab project, to discuss how AI can contribute to the management of outbreaks and pandemics.

What role for AI in outbreak management?

The potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for improving healthcare has become a subject of significant interest in the past years. One of the areas in which AI can have particular relevance is the field of outbreak management. As highlighted by the event moderator Damien Gruson, the urgent need for fostering and deploying AI solutions has been demonstrated by the current COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis has provided a new impetus for the deployment of AI in the management of outbreak.

In this context, David Gruson, Director of the Health Programme at Jouve, highlighted the relevance of AI in the management of infectious diseases even prior to the pandemic. AI technologies have long been deployed for the purposes of data management and disease outbreak monitoring with the HealthMap project being but one prominent example. The COVID-19 crisis has, however, proven to be a turning point for the field as it has necessitated the overhaul of existing approaches.

Mr. Gruson also outlined some of the challenges associated with deploying AI solutions in the healthcare context. Availability of reliable data as well as the high starting costs and steep investment curve remain major challenges for providers, especially for medium-sized ones. Increased use of AI for tracking in the context of the COVID- 19 pandemic has also raised ethical and political questions about data protection and balancing individual freedoms with collective interest. Finally, Mr. Gruson stressed the need to achieve a balance between ensuring appropriate regulations of the sector to prevent abuses and encouraging innovation. He noted that some positive signs in this respect are present as regulators have shown interest in facilitating the growth of AI technologies.

Neda Milevska-Kostova (International Alliance of Patients’ Organisations – IAPO), for her part delved deeper into the role of patients in the AI debate. She expressed concern that the current pandemic and the associated digital disruption can somewhat overshadow patients as healthcare professionals need more time to service the technology. However, from a patient perspective AI deployment can have concrete practical applications and benefits. AI-enabled smartphone applications for outbreak tracking, diagnostic chatbots and tools for prognosis prediction based on large data-sets are already being developed. While further study into their effectiveness is still needed, such tools have the potential to reduce the waiting time between symptoms and diagnosis and allow patients to assume an active role in the healthcare process. In the context of the development of such tools, ethical and security issues also need to be addressed.

Outstanding challenges and questions notwithstanding, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an incubator for the rollout of AI solutions in the healthcare sector. Nadine Nehme, Researcher and Scientist at Medicus AI, discussed some of those solutions as well as the general take-up of AI technologies by various countries during the crisis. She noted that AI-driven algorithms and platforms are increasingly deployed to assist healthcare professionals in diagnosis and treatment as well as to track the evolution of the virus and its spread.  A good example in this context is the Infervision software which was developed to read lung scans of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients. Platforms such as BlueDot and HealthMap have successfully utilised various data points in order to map and monitor the spread of the virus.

Dr Nehme further elaborated on the role of AI in tracking which has proven critical in the current pandemic. At the same time, she shared other speakers’ concerns over data protection and surveillance. She stressed the need to find the right balance between data privacy and public health in order to ensure that the population does not lose faith and trust in the healthcare system. Finally, Dr Nehme cautioned that AI while promising cannot compensate for the structural problems of existing healthcare systems, which have been exposed by the crisis.

Healthcare management has a great role to play in the roll-out of AI in the healthcare settings. In this regard, George Valiotis, Executive Director of the European Health Management Association, emphasised the need for health managers to equip staff with the skills needed to make use of AI solutions. Similarly, he noted that ensuring patients have sufficient digital literacy to engage with these technologies will also be essential. Mr. Valiotis argued that wider AI deployment offers clear cost-saving benefits as it could reduce the margin of error which is associated with enormous cost for healthcare systems. Furthermore, AI solutions could free up additional capacities as some of the administrative burden is lifted off shoulders of nurses. Mr. Valiotis stressed, however, that technologies cannot replace humans entirely as they cannot replace certain clinician skills such as empathy and persuasion.

Overall, AI has shown great potential for managing outbreaks like the current COVID-19 pandemic, but much is needed in order for such technologies to be deployed in an effective and safe manner. New standards on data protection and management should strike the balance between innovation and patient protection in order to allow healthcare systems to reap the benefits of AI. If deployed successfully, however, AI can help us learn faster and vastly improve the efficiency of our healthcare systems.

My City-Lab is a project financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) which aims to integrate the innovation of laboratory medicine and mobile health. The scope of the project is to facilitate access to laboratory tests as part of a collaborative approach to ambulatory care of a chronically ill individual, as well as to contribute to the dynamic monitoring of patients with chronic diseases.