Developing world embraces AI doctors but UK remains sceptical

05 July 2017 5 min. read

With the NHS facing a funding crisis, healthcare providers are looking to AI to cut costs – but service users remain apprehensive with the WannaCry hack still fresh in the public’s minds. Citizens in developing nations meanwhile were more inclined to risk new technology, with less to lose in the absence of affordable care.

PwC has conducted research in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) on the willingness of people to be treated by robots and artificial intelligence (AI). AI and robotics will transform the UK’s healthcare, PwC conducted a research surveying over 11,000 people from 12 countries in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Technological innovations in the field of robotics and AI offer opportunities within the healthcare sector in the near future though, and PwC’s study illustrates the fact people are increasingly prepared to look to technology to provide healthcare, especially in emerging economies where the healthcare system has much room for development.

The survey revealed that 55% of all respondents said they would be willing to use advanced computer technology. AI can answer important health concerns, conduct tests, diagnose and recommend treatment. There is a marked difference between developed and developing economies when it comes to trust however. Countries where healthcare is a guaranteed right for all citizens, such as UK, as well as the majority of Western and Northern Europe, were less willing to trust a non-human healthcare provider – whereas the opposite can be said for those inhabiting less economically developed countries, where healthcare still has much room for improvement.

AI and robots in healthcare

Human surgeons preferred

The UK citizens remain less optimistic about the future of AI and robotics in healthcare with over half not wanting to engage in the matter and would rather be treated by trained professionals.

Amid continued economic uncertainty and growing concerns regarding turbulent Brexit negotiations, which commenced in Brussels in June, UK businesses are looking to prepare for the future by investing in research and technological innovation for the nation’s industry – in spite of the short-term potential for disruption. The longer-term hope is that this will safeguard the UK’s position as a world leader in the technology, driving economic prosperity, negating the potential upheaval caused by increasingly automated work as predicted by a recent McKinsey report.

In healthcare, the issue seems considerably less certain to move forward. Today, about 11,000 articles are published on dermatology, for example, and without AI, it seems an impossible task to structure and apply all this knowledge in practice. However, beyond this potential tool for categorisation, enthusiasm for AI to supplant a doctor’s diagnosis remains sporadic. Artificial intelligence may provide patients with a first or a second opinion but respondents speaking against AI argue that the doctor should make the final call.

Will robots replace surgeons in the operating theatre

PwC’s UK respondents were significantly less keen on the idea of robots and AI providing healthcare. Particularly, potential patients had reservations about complex operations utilising AI, with 32% women compared to 47% of men saying they would be willing to risk the scalpel in the ‘hands’ of a machine.

A significant generation gap also emerged, with those polled beneath the age of 24 far more eager to see digitised healthcare, with procedures being performed by robots and AI as a supposed to human doctors, at 55% in favour, contrasting with the UK’s aging population, which saw the elderly argue 47% against.

While large savings could be achieved as a whole, as struggling NHS trusts face further funding cuts, the concern that the country’s healthcare service remains notably vulnerable in the wake of the WannaCry ransomware hack undoubtedly played a part in people’s sustained distrust of surgical androids.

Absence of affordable care

In comparison, the Middle East should a greater level of enthusiasm in substituting doctors with AI. They view AI as a solution for the clinical workforce shortage present in the Middle East. PwC accredited one of the main benefits being accessibility to healthcare (36% of overall respondents), and the accuracy and speed of potential diagnosis (33%). Individuals inhabiting developed countries already enjoy more reliable, highly-complex and functional healthcare systems thus showed less willingness to replace such a system with the unknown.

Over the next few years, global healthcare will continue to face many greater challenges. The aging population bares the/a burden on the economy as the elderly outnumber the working-age population. They place stress on the health care costs, unsustainable pension commitments and changing demand drivers within the economy which could undermine the high living standards enjoyed by the most advanced economies.

Costs are likely to increase and demographic changes are expected to occur, with such shifts in society a central to hospitals and healthcare. Democratisation of care is allowing individuals to monitor their own health, thus take the initiative to take ownership of health conditions.

In dealing with these challenges, an important role could be played by AI – in the developing world at least. Technological developments in this area can contribute to more accessible care, faster and more accurate diagnoses and operations, better recommendations and fewer mistakes. Also in relation to the rapid developments in telecommunications and consumer electronics, robots and AI can play a significant role.