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Medical AI platform claims to be able to match actual doctors for health advice

Dr Ali Parsa, CEO and Founder, Babylon Health 4

UK Medical tech company Babylon Health has demonstrated an AI platform that seems to diagnose as accurately as real, live human doctors.

At an event in London the company fired a bunch of questions at its AI (which doesn’t have a name yet – how about Quincy?), derived from publicly available Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) sources including bits of the exam GPs take to become qualified. The AI got a pass mark of 81% while the average for humans is 72%. You can read the full research paper here.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that there is a shortage of over 5 million doctors globally, leaving more than half the world’s population without access to even the most basic healthcare services,” said Dr Ali Parsa, Babylon’s Founder and CEO (pictured). Even in the richest nations, primary care is becoming increasingly unaffordable and inconvenient, often with waiting times that make it not readily accessible.

“Babylon’s latest artificial intelligence capabilities show that it is possible for anyone, irrespective of their geography, wealth or circumstances, to have free access to health advice that is on-par with top-rated practicing clinicians.

“Tonight’s results clearly illustrate how AI-augmented health services can reduce the burden on healthcare systems around the world. Our mission is to put accessible and affordable health services into the hands of every person on Earth. These landmark results take humanity a significant step closer to achieving a world where no-one is denied safe and accurate health advice.”

Inevitably real GPs aren’t exactly comfortable with this sign of their impending obsolescence. The RGCP immediately retorted with a press release headed “Apps and algorithms may ‘support but will never replace’ GPs, says RCGP”. Here’s what its Vice Chair, Professor Martin Marshall, had to say on the matter.

“The potential of technology to support doctors to deliver the best possible patient care is fantastic, but at the end of the day, computers are computers, and GPs are highly-trained medical professionals: the two can’t be compared and the former may support but will never replace the latter.

“No app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does. Every day we deliver care to more than a million people across the UK, taking into account the physical, psychological and social factors that may be impacting on a patient’s health; we consider the different heath conditions a patient is living with, and medications they might be taking, when formulating a treatment plan. Much of what GPs do is based on a trusting relationship between a patient and a doctor, and research has shown GPs have a ‘gut feeling’ when they just know something is wrong with a patient.

“An app might be able to pass an automated clinical knowledge test but the answer to a clinical scenario isn’t always cut and dried, there are many factors to take into account, a great deal of risk to manage, and the emotional impact a diagnosis might have on a patient to consider. This is why the College’s MRCGP assessment, which all GPs must now pass in order to practise independently in the UK, has three elements and is designed to test not just clinical knowledge, but also the ability to make evidence-based decisions, and to deliver person-centred care through effective communication with patients and colleagues.

“It is also the case that the exam-preparation materials, used by Babylon in this research, will have been compiled for revision purposes and are not necessarily representative of the full-range of questions and standard used in the actual MRCGP exam, so to say that Babylon’s algorithm has performed better than the average MRCGP candidate is dubious.

“Babylon’s GP at Hand service uses technology in a way that some patients like. But some don’t, and the way it is being used risks undermining and damaging traditional general practice services. The College has publicly criticised GP at Hand for ‘cherry-picking’ patients, leaving traditional GP services to deal with the most complex patients, without sufficient resources to do so. We stand by this: we do not endorse Babylon, or its GP at Hand service, being used in the way that it is, in the NHS.

“Technology has the potential to transform the NHS, but it must be implemented in an equitable way, that doesn’t benefit some patients, and not others, and is not to the detriment of the general practice service as a whole.”

In essence Marshall is speaking on behalf of anyone potentially affected by the march of the AI chatbots and the increasing obsolescence of human beings. There are so many questions around this stuff beyond merely their technical accuracy, including soft skills, the unique nuances of human interaction and culpability for mistakes. But if this sort of thing provides medical assistance where it was previously unavailable it’s hard to overlook.

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