What does the future of healthcare look like in the age of artificial intelligence (AI)? We could wax lyrical about how we see it. We could ask some of our AI experts what’s possible. But the answer really lies with those who will be spending the money, spotting the industry trends, green-lighting new projects and calculating ROI. So, what do healthcare execs think of AI?

AI is a broad term. Today, medical AI solutions encompass robot-assisted surgery, dosage management, cybersecurity, diagnosis automation and many, many things in between. Not to mention conversational AI healthcare solutions, which is the area we operate in with our digital human technology.

However, for this article, we’re going to look broadly and objectively at healthcare AI in general. What do execs really think artificial intelligence will bring to the medical industry in both the short and long term?

1. They’re planning for it to truly help patients as a priority

Let’s start with the area of healthcare AI deployment that’s expected to make the biggest difference, according to Optum Research’s 2020 AI Survey.

Over half (55%) of healthcare execs say “improving patient experiences” or “improving health outcomes” will have the greatest impact on their investment in AI. In other words, the end result on patient health will be the key result they’re looking for in their AI projects.

This is, of course, encouraging news. After all, everything comes down to patient wellbeing. Even financial outcomes, like penalties on patient readmission rates, are determined by the quality of patient care.

Looking forward, medical AI technologies can benefit from the same patient-focus strategy as telehealth – a success story in healthcare tech. Telehealth has benefitted from solving patient pain points first as a matter of priority. In fact, one study found that 94% of patients who used a telehealth service for the first time last year enjoyed the “convenience and ease” of it.

2. Execs say they’ll realize savings reasonably quickly

Of course, AI needs to be affordable. The most impressive technology in the world is useless if it’s unattainable to the masses.

Fortunately, 57% of healthcare executives are confident in seeing savings from their AI investments in as little as two years. What’s more, the respondents were all in the late-stages of AI deployment, meaning they have a better grasp on the reality of their AI projects and projections.

This also correlates to findings from Accenture, which predict that healthcare AI projects may pay for themselves – as well as think for themselves.

Accenture forecasts annual savings to the US healthcare economy of around $150 billion by 2026, from the top 10 healthcare AI solutions alone. The most valuable of these in terms of savings are AI-augmented robot-assisted surgery ($40 billion), virtual nursing assistants ($20 billion) and administrative workflow assistance ($18 billion).

3. Execs are confident healthcare AI will create jobs, not destroy them

The threat many people see in AI (often due to cinematic storytelling) is that it will take jobs away from real workers. The threat is not shared by healthcare executives, 56% of whom say AI deployment will create jobs, not destroy them.

Execs who are already getting hands-on with the technologies and are in the later stages of an AI deployment are even more assured – 76% say it will lead to job creation.

Human augmentation is the end goal of AI. It helps healthcare workers do more, be it through more accurate surgical tools or intelligent patient triaging solutions. Conversational AI solutions like digital humans aim to take more of the simple conversational tasks away from overburdened staff, so they have the time and energy to focus on patients who are most in need.

And it’s needed. A huge 43% of healthcare workers say they suffer from burnout. Burnout is not being overworked; it’s being exhausted, mentally and physically, to the point where even rest doesn’t solve the problem. For this reason and more, the healthcare worker shortage could get even worse.

Medical staff need support, more time, better resources. By taking some of the burden, answering repetitive patient questions, improving administrative workflows and reducing patient readmissions – to give just a few outcomes – AI will hopefully make things broadly better before things get much worse.

4. Execs believe COVID-19 has accelerated their AI plans

Perhaps the most unsurprising executive insight of all is that 56% say that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated their AI plans.

This is very much inline with the digitization of many industries during the turn of the decade. The need for no-contact, remotely accessible customer channels increased. This was an even greater necessity in healthcare settings. No-contact non-emergency patient care in the form of telehealth visits, for example, meant people weren’t being made more vulnerable by visiting their physician.

The world hasn’t so much changed in the adoption of AI technology as it has been thrust into the future, and many healthcare execs have been in the front seat driving that acceleration. Given the potential impact mentioned above on patients, staff and the balance sheet, it might be a faint silver lining to an utterly devastating couple of years.

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