On a bitingly cold evening in late December, having spent most of the day nursing a stomach ache, I decided I could no longer avoid medical advice.
After a week of holiday overeating and end-of-year slothfulness, my body was clearly protesting. So I reluctantly sought the help I needed, and began to list my litany of ills. “My stomach is killing me,” I complained. The pain was a mild burning that came and went when I moved, and the area felt tender when pressed. I didn’t have a fever or any nausea, but I felt bloated. I was not pregnant and still had a normal appetite, but it had been hours since the symptoms had started and it didn’t seem to be getting any better.
“Well, the good news is your symptoms don’t seem worrying on a medical level and can be managed at home. This sounds like dyspepsia to me. Dyspepsia is doctor-speak for indigestion,” came the response. “You should try to avoid irritants such as spicy foods, black coffee/tea or anti-inflammatories. If the problem does not settle or becomes recurrent, talk to a GP.”
The diagnosis, unremarkable though it seems, did not come from any human medical professional — it was delivered to me on my smartphone by Babylon, an artificially intelligent medical adviser with whom I had been exchanging messages via an app. A single 10-minute trip to my local GP, with whom I would have had a similar exchange, would have cost the UK’s National Health Service £45. If I had asked to see a nurse, it would have cost the NHS £13. Instead, my five-minute consultation had cost Babylon — and the NHS — absolutely nothing. A day of following its advice, and my stomach ache resolved itself.
Babylon’s app aims to be more than a WebMD-style symptom checker. The London-based company’s team of 100 artificial intelligence researchers is not merely building a lexicon of diseases — it is trying to create the world’s largest repository of medical knowledge, a superhuman doctor who can triage, diagnose and even treat you via your phone. The company hopes that the app’s new version, to be launched in April, will be the first robot to be clinically certified by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to provide medical diagnoses.
The diagnosis Babylon offered me was based on billions of data points collected from the thousands of test consultations it has done every day since its launch (the company claims these diagnoses have 92 per cent accuracy).
In contrast, an average human doctor does about 7,000 consultations a year. “I don’t think it is going to be as good as a doctor,” says Ali Parsa, the founder of Babylon. “I think it is going to be 10 times more precise than a doctor. No human brain is ever going to be capable of doing anything of the sort.”
Parsa’s AI doctor is one of a slew of powerful tools that have transformed smartphones into mobile medical clinics that can be operated by anyone with an internet connection. These tools are far more sophisticated than the Fitbit generation of wireless devices, which help track steps, count calories and analyse sleeping patterns.
The digital upheaval is already under way: last year, the US Food and Drug Administration approved 36 connected health apps and devices, from mobile lung-function monitors to blood-glucose tests, that provide medical advice to consumers.
In 2015, the UK’s NHS pledged to foster four to six regional testbeds, geographic areas of about one million people each, to experiment with these innovations on real patients over the next five years.
This year, we will see physicians experiment with smartphones to conduct traditional examinations of your organs, perform ultrasound scans, measure vitals such as heart rhythm, blood pressure and glucose levels, and execute an array of lab tests from liver and kidney function to infection diagnoses and even DNA sequencing. All of this via a complement of miniature attachments that simply plug into your phone.
The gradual transformation of your smartphone into a GP will cause a tectonic shift in healthcare infrastructure as we know it. “In five years’ time, smartphones — or whatever device we use to access information — will take the burden away from the limited number of human specialists we have,” says Keith McNeil, chief clinical information officer of the NHS.
“People will get really intelligent triage that’s personalised to them from their phones, or be empowered to look after their own chronic conditions, like diabetes, via home monitoring.”