Why Dr. Rob Brisk believes the time to start thinking seriously about AI is right here, right now

 

For healthcare executives, each trend sweeping through the world of healthcare must seem like a new opportunity to get comfortable between a rock and a hard place. No one wants to be slow off the mark with the next penicillin, smallpox vaccine, primary PCI. But worse still, to jump on a bandwagon headed the same way as leeching, snake oil and trepanation.

AI is another trend that can be hard to know what to do with. Getting AI-ready isn’t a quick job. You need to invest in widespread digitisation of services, modern IT infrastructure and a data governance policy that functions as more than a guard dog for sensitive information. You must upskill staff, adapt clinical pathways and educate patients. To service managers getting ready to climb the mountain of post-pandemic backlogs, AI must look a lot like a backpack full of rocks. From the C-suite, it might well look like a cash sinkhole; especially given the paucity of compelling business cases for AI in the clinical setting right now.

On the other hand, there are cars driving themselves around the streets of California and GPT-3 can wax lyrical on deep philosophical issues like the purpose of life. Big pharma and leading pre-clinical research institutions – not exactly frivolous spenders – are betting heavily on machine learning as the future of imaging, genomics, cheminformatics and biomedical language processing. If your organisation is way behind the curve in 2025 because you didn’t start preparing today, “I thought it was all a fad” simply won’t fly.

I get to work with a lot of healthcare providers at different stages in their digital journeys. In my experience, the difference between the AI trailblazers and those still deciding when to jump is largely a matter of perspective. If you measure the success of a clinical strategy exclusively in terms of proven service improvements and cost savings – e.g. more efficient radiotherapy planning, shorter turnaround times for pathology samples, faster clinical coding – it’s tough to make a case for serious investment in AI at the moment. But if you view your AI strategy as the key to recruiting exceptional staff who want to do their life’s work at the cutting edge, the balance begins to shift. If you conceive of your centre as part of a wider, interdependent ecosystem that includes academic partners, SMEs and start-ups: the benefits of access to an AI-ready clinical facility can be huge.

It’s true that for organisations whose routine waits are three times the national target, whose on-call rota has more holes than a Swiss cheese and whose risk register is beginning to look like the sequel to War and Peace, cutting-edge technology and “ecosystem thinking” seem like distant luxuries. But there’s only so long any of us can keep sprinting just to stand still. Between the ageing population, ever-more-advanced interventions, chronic underinvestment – the current model of care just isn’t sustainable. Whether you’re managing a tertiary hospital in a major city or a family practice in a sleepy backwater, we’re all going need to bite the bullet and change tack sooner or later. After all, it’s that or keep going until we collapse.

Which brings us back to the original question: when will be the right time to take the plunge and start thinking seriously about AI as part of a new way of doing things?

For my money: right now. In the absence of a vaccine-resistant variant or some other major disaster, “regroup and recover” planning is going to be the theme of the coming months. The main focus will be on recovering from the trauma of the pandemic and dealing with backlogs, of course. But it’s also a great opportunity to think beyond that. And the good news is that the first steps in the AI journey are largely a thought exercise: defining where you want to be 10 years from now (creating an AI Vision), establishing where you are today (undertaking an AI Readiness evaluation) and mapping out a route from here to there (developing an AI Strategy).

If that process concludes with an informed decision to wait it out a bit longer – to hang fire, perhaps, until the business case is proven beyond reasonable doubt – then that is a whole lot better than a course set by inertia.

If, on the other hand, you’ve decided to go ahead and start laying the foundations for an AI-ready future, great! I’ll see you at the AIMed Imaging event on 29-30th June.

Dr. Rob Brisk, Developer Relations & Alliance Manager, EMEA Healthcare, NVIDIA and Specialty Doctor, Dept of Cardiology, Southern HSC Trust, will be speaking at AIMed’s virtual multi-track CME-accredited event, ‘Imaging’ on 29th and 30th June.

View the full, exciting two day agenda and book here