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AI accelerated COVID-19 response, reveals Microsoft AI executive

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Microsoft's National AI Director in Health & Life Sciences, Tom Lawry, provides an update on AI in our latest Omnia Health TV interview.

In February 2020, Tom Lawry, Microsoft's National Director for AI, Health & Life Sciences, shared insights on AI in health in an engaging talk on 'How the future isn't what it used to be'. Much has happened in AI and healthcare in the months since, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Omnia Health Insights caught up with Lawry ahead of Arab Health 2021 to obtain an update on AI in healthcare (full video below) 1.5 years after the onset of the global crisis.

He highlighted two key lessons that have emerged in the pandemic, and offered an example of how Microsoft helped respond using its tools and technologies. 

"The first is, the pandemic basically showed all of us that when faced with the challenge, healthcare and clinical and business leaders are capable of Agile transformation. So you look at everything that happened, the heroic efforts of clinicians and doctors, nurses and others, to really rethink how to provide health care. And so we saw things like the rapid adoption and growth of telemedicine and virtual visits. And these things show that healthcare is capable of Agile transformation when needed.

The second thing is, the pandemic also demonstrated that AI when done right can produce rapid time-to-value. There are a number of cases that I can think about where, because of AI, we were able to respond much more quickly and effectively than had AI not been used.

So a quick example is here at Microsoft, we have an industrial grade health bot, when the pandemic started kicking in, you know, from the spring of last year, we basically took that bot and spun it into a COVID specific bot, put it out there for hospitals around the world - the Centers for Disease Control adopted it here in the United States - to allow anyone to address questions they had on on their symptoms.

And basically, this bot was used to triage tens of millions of inquiries of people from around the world to help understand what they might have or not have and how to triage for next best steps for actions. So you can only imagine tens of millions of worried consumers and citizens if they were calling in to a phone bank for humans to answer those questions."

AI training

While everyone is still early in the journey of using AI at scale in health and medicine, Lawry continued, there will be barriers that include people not understanding what AI is, or the value that’s driven when properly curated in a healthcare setting.

The “technical side” of AI doesn’t matter, he added - value needs to be understood as automating or augmenting tasks performed by healthcare workers. Rather than replace clinicians and finance specialists, AI will improve the way they work and begin solving problems act were previously not thought of as solvable.

Training is therefore critical, but not necessarily teaching a healthcare worker how to code - rather it relates more to developing an understanding of what AI is, and particularly in the context of what a healthcare worker does.

Pre-COVID, Lawry conducted clinical and executive leadership training on AI, helping professionals to understand how it is applied in a health and medical situation. Clinicians defining where they can get better at is key, allowing teams specialising in machine learning and algorithms to arrive at the right AI solutions. 

Nuance conversational AI

In recent days, Microsoft won US antitrust approval for its deal to buy Nuance Communication, an AI and speech technology company. Nuance is the worldwide leader in the use of conversational AI in health and medicine, Lawry explained.

Its program of conversational AI is powered by Microsoft componentry, allowing a doctor to speak to a patient while an ambient intelligence is recording in the background. The doctor is therefore empowered to look the patient in the eye, have a conversation and demonstrate empathy, while an AI automates the rest. 

Post-pandemic ubiquity 

Lawry anticipates a post-COVID future when AI becomes ubiquitous - an everyday aspect of health and medicine. The majority of systems today - eletronic medical records, diagnostic imaging., and patient administration systems will all become much more intelligent.

Second, AI will empower everyone to look at different models of care, whether in the hospital, at home or in transit with portable medical devices. It will futhermore be much more "prescriptive", allowing the patient to stay healthy or the patient with a chronic illness such as diabetes or OCPD to manage their disease better.

Tom Lawry will be delivering the keynote at the Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare Conference at Arab Health 2021 on Wednesday 23 June 2021 (9.45am - 10.15am).

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