Artificial intelligence (AI) is the science of building and programming a machine that can imitate human cognition. Dramatic advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence are projected to generate trillions of dollars in economic growth globally in the next decade. While these technologies show incredible promise to improve patient care, we must consider our health system’s capacity to deliver on their potential.
In 2017, the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology’s report Challenge Ahead: Integrating Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and 3D Printing Technologies into Canada’s Healthcare Systems examined this question and others in a comprehensive study brought on by the rise of automated innovations. The committee heard that deep learning will transform every aspect of patient care, from improving medical decision-making in diagnostics, prognosis, selecting treatment methods and in providing robotic surgeries and examinations.
With one out of 10 Canadians employed in health care and social services, it is natural to question the potential negative effect of these new technologies on health-care workers. The good news is that the need for qualified health-care professionals may prove to be a constant in a changing world. Experts agree that AI is no substitute for the human experience, and that new technologies will support greater efficiency, giving medical professionals more time to interact with their patients.
While technology continues to advance at an astounding rate, Canada’s health-care system is shackled by the realities of an underfunded and overburdened system. The pace of change will be defined not by development, but by procurement. Simply because a new MRI scanner with the latest AI technology is available every year does not mean that immediate health system integration will result. One third of MRI units in Canada are over 10 years old. Limited resources and outdated procurement criteria slow replacement rates to a trickle.
This means that artificial intelligence will be gradually integrated, with time for professionals to leverage new tools in order to maximize their practice. Adoption and use of digital health technologies have the potential to make the delivery of health care more accessible, convenient and cost-effective, but it will not happen across the country overnight. While we must support the integration of these technologies in a manner that complements — not replaces — the human workforce, we must give even greater thought to what’s holding Canada back from reaping the benefits of innovation.
Concerns about the sustainability of Canada’s health-care system are well-founded. Increasing federal health spending in recent years is hardly keeping pace with inflation and population growth, much less ballooning provincial budgets. AI technologies offer incredible opportunities to maximize the value of our health workforce, while improving the quality of patient care.
The Senate’s study revealed that complex systems of provincial procurement are a significant hurdle in getting innovative medical device products to market in Canada. Despite obvious efficiencies and cost savings, there is currently very little incentive for provincial health-care systems to embrace these new technologies. The federal government has a key leadership role to play in encouraging provincial governments to integrate these new technologies into our publicly funded systems. Modernizing procurement will open the door to more widespread commercialization of new medical technologies, with humans and machines working hand-in-hand.
Senator Judith G. Seidman is a deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. She represents the De la Durantaye division of Quebec.
This article appeared in the May 7, 2018 edition of The Hill Times.