Central and Eastern Europe is well positioned to take a leading role in the development of AI in healthcare, but the creation of a marketplace for data is crucial.
Just how important a role will artificial intelligence (AI) have in medicine over the coming years? That it will revolutionise healthcare is now beyond doubt, particularly in early diagnosis.
Even so, its importance – and the need to speed up its implementation – cannot be overstated.
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Ligia Kornowska, the managing director of the Polish Hospital Federation, and a leader of the AI Coalition in Healthcare, is clear: “not to make use of AI,” she says, “will soon be viewed as medical malpractice.”
But for this to happen, we need health systems where there is room to make the application of AI possible.
“The key to this is education,” says Balazs Fürjes, the managing director of EIT Health Innostars, a cluster within EIT Health that focuses on promoting entrepreneurship, innovation and education in the domain of healthcare.
“We need to improve the digital skills of healthcare workers urgently, because in the future knowing basic digital skills, biomedical and data science, data analysis, and the fundamentals of genomics will be critical,” he says.
AI as a means of freeing up time
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that by 2030 the world will be short of 9.9 million doctors, nurses and midwives, which adds further urgency to address the challenge of already overburdened health systems.
“Supporting the widespread adoption and scaling of AI could help alleviate resource capacity shortfalls both now and in the future, for example, by streamlining or even eliminating administrative tasks which can occupy anything between 20 and 80 per cent of a healthcare professional’s time,” adds Fürjes.
Central and Eastern Europe is well positioned to take a leading role in the development of AI in healthcare.
EIT Health, in partnership with GE Healthcare, is currently running a programme, HelloAIRIS, dedicated to upskilling doctors and other healthcare professionals with the necessary AI understanding and competencies.
“In our portfolio we have some of the best start-ups in Hungary and the wider CEE and Southern Europe regions, says Fürjes.
“These include InSimu and YogaNotch from Hungary, Brainscan and OncoWatch from Poland, XVision from Romania and Neus from Slovenia.”
“And there are other examples of successful start-ups that may change the future of healthcare with their AI based solutions. Just to name a few, PatchAI, an Italian start-up, one of the winners of EIT Health Catapult 2020 made the first cognitive platform for the collection and predictive analysis of patient-reported data in clinical trials, embedding an AI-powered virtual assistant mimicking human empathetic conversations to engage and motivate patients and increase protocol compliance.
“Hungary’s Sineko meanwhile aims to revolutionise international teleradiology with its GRAID software translating radiological reports. In Portugal, iLoF, the winner of the EIT Jumpstarter 2019 programme created a cloud-based library of optical fingerprints, powered by photonics and AI, that provides non-invasive tracking, screening and stratification for drug discovery, adapted to each clinical trial needs. These solutions are the proof that we are on the right track, but we still have to work a lot until AI can be fully implemented and applied in healthcare.”
The importance of data
Crucial to the development of AI in any industry is data, and the presence of a substantial data economy. In healthcare, data is of utmost importance.
Here, Hungary is already ahead of much of the world. Its Space for Electronic Healthcare Services (EESZT) is a central database which stores and records the health records of all Hungarian patients, which can offer start-ups access to the data they need to test their AI solutions, data which otherwise would be difficult to access for up-and-coming companies.
Furthermore, as part of the country’s overall AI strategy, data wallets are being developed, wallets which would allow individuals to have a measure of control over their personal data and be able to share this information for research purposes at their own discretion.
According to Roland Jakab, managing director of Ericsson in Hungary, these wallets are “unique, one of a kind solutions that will enable citizens to self-manage their data like never before.”
They would allow individuals to “enjoy the power of their data and profit from it by receiving personalised offers and services,” he says, opening a market for data and giving individuals greater control over how it is used.
Ligia Kornowska agrees about the importance of data.
“I think that access to medical data should be open, but we have to make sure that data is anonymous,” she says.
“As the owners of their personal medical data, patients should have a right to donate that data to trusted third parties that could collect their consent. When it comes to new technology in healthcare, it’s crucial to have complete patient data.”
‘Set in motion the data economy’
Ultimately, more trust is needed, more openness, because health is an issue where profit should come only second, there’s a greater good at stake.
“All in all, the whole European data economy needs to be set in motion – and we need thriving data marketplaces for that,” says Jakab. “Public data platforms are just as important in this regard as marketplaces for data exchange between businesses. A precondition here is having regulation that equally respects privacy and the principles of ethics, promotes innovation and protects national digital sovereignty.”
As with so many areas of healthcare, funding poses a problem too.
Personalised medicine requires huge amounts of money: it costs a lot to target rare diseases with AI.
“In many cases the tech is there, but a disproportionate amount of funding is needed just to treat a very limited number of patients which already-burdened healthcare systems cannot bear,” says Jakab.
“That’s why donations play a big role here, and we’re going to witness a growing social dialogue that discusses to what extent public funds should be spent on such targeted therapies. But again, this is definitely a trend, and the more developed AI becomes, the closer to widespread use of personalised AI we will get.”
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