Technology: transforming healthcare?

As our health services face increasing demand could a new app help lessen the load?
18 October 2016

Interview with 

Dr Ali Parsa, Babylon Health


Another solution to tackling infection would be to keep people out of hospitals -Mobile Phone Music or the doctor's surgery - altogether. A new App called Babylon Health claims it can bring a medical diagnosis to a user's pocket. Founder and CEO Ali Parsa took Chris Smith through the fine print...

Ali - It's an app that brings you to your doctor as much as possible in your pocket, wherever you are. So you can make appointments in seconds, see a doctor on your mobile phone as you facetime with anybody else within minutes. If you have a symptom you can triage yourself and we have one of the world's most advanced artificial intelligence that will look at billions of variations of symptoms and very accurately will tell you what you should do next.

We have the ability to monitor you; everything from the health of your liver to your kidney to your heart and have it all in your pocket for you to see. We keep your clinical records and we can do tests and send you kits when necessary. We connect you with the specialists and psychologists, again in the same way.

Chris - So just to unpack that a little bit - so people with a smartphone, you would download this app and install it and then it would be what, a pay per go system or is it free - how does it work?

Ali - You could do all of the above. And if you want to buy it and use it yourself, you either pay five pounds per month and you have unlimited access to a GP, or you just pay twenty-five pounds and use it when you want to see a GP. But if you ask a question and you check your symptoms, all of the rest is free.

Chris - Let's talk about the AI (artificial intelligence) bit for a second then. So you're saying that you have got a clever system running here that can compare my symptoms, that I would just tap in and tell the app what I am experiencing and it would intuitively begin to work out what might be wrong with me?

Ali - That's correct.

Chris - Tell me how it works.

Ali - So it looks at a variety of probability of the combination of various symptoms and say what could possibly be wrong with you according to the combinations of the symptoms you have given it. No different than a chess player, for instance, playing chess. It looks at the probabilities of different moves and where that can end up. So we've launched a symptom checker that triages, so it does what a clinical nurse will do in a triage in an A & E and it will tell you whether you should go see a doctor or go to a pharmacy or the kind of stuff NHS 111 does, but it does it in an average of one minute. It's free, it's done by a machine rather than any human being involved and we published a paper when we launched it that shows that it's more accurate than a nurse and a doctor. And you would expect it to be because no human brain can look at billions of variations.

Chris - But if I may - the thing is I went to medical school for a long time to learn to ask people about things that they might not think to volunteer. So yes, if they're saying I've got this symptom and this symptom, but what your system can't do is to take a look at that pers - or can it - and spot the things that they haven't though are relevant but which, actually, are pretty important or are more important than the thing they think is wrong with them?

Ali - And you are absolutely right Chris. So it's a system that does nothing else but check with artificial intelligence and tell you what's wrong with you. You're right, it's not the right system for the kind of technology that exists today so that's we will let you know that you need to talk to one of our doctors, book and appointment, and within a few minutes a human doctor will appear on your screen and you will talk to a human doctor.

Chris - Well, you make the case very well for what happens in a country like the UK, a rich country, it has GPs on tap, it has an NHS, but there must be places in the world where this sort of technology could be very readily harnessed and bring enormous benefits over and above what anything you could achieve here.

Ali - That's correct. Precisely because of that Chris, we went to Rwanda, which is one of the poorest countries in the world and say that how can we give the same quality of care at the prices that the people of Rwanda can afford. And we launched in Rwanda about three weeks ago and the result has been amazing. Most people in Rwanda do have a mobile phone. It's early days yet but it's certainly our intention to try and put an affordable health care into the hands of everybody on earth.

Chris - I know I've spent a long time learning to talk to patients face to face but, if I'm now faced with talking to them on a screen where I can't physically reach out and touch them and the technology may be dubious, are doctors comfortable working like that - do they express any discomfort working that way?

Ali - No, they are very comfortable because first of all we train them, we vet them very carefully and make sure they are highly experienced doctors. We don't hire doctors who don't have an average of ten years experience and so on and so forth. Yut you're right, it is not a problem to be taken lightly but what is the alternative - think about it. In Britain one in five of us can't get to see a doctor that we want at the time we want. One in eight of us when we do so, and so on and so forth, but that is in Britain. In Rwanda or fifty percent of the world's population in developing countries there is no access, or very little access to healthcare. The alternative is much worse than the remote ability of getting to those patients.

Chris - And is this the direction in which you see healthcare going, or is this the next big healthcare revolution that you anticipate seeing?

Ali - Absolutely! I think what we're going to see in healthcare is what we've seen in every other area of human endeavour, where technology will come in and disrupt the old models of delivery and make it a lot better. What we are doing is just the very beginning of what can be done. You just look at what has happened in diagnostics, for instance, in the last ten years; it has improved at two times the rate of Moore's law. We will see the same improvement across the systems of delivery of healthcare and I think that soon we will do with healthcare what people like Google have done with information; make it affordable, accessible; put it in the hands of everybody on Earth. That is not a dream, it is an achievable.

Chris - And lastly Ali - what's to stop someone like me thinking well that's a blinking good idea and just copying it?

Ali - I would certainly hope you do because it is irrelevant who manages to put that into the hands of everybody. What matters to humanity is that our best brains, best talents, best resources, mobilise to solve one of the biggests challenges human beings have. The more people that participate in this endeavour the better for us all.

Chris - But I put it to you - if I'm on your app and it tells me in rural Rwanda, in the middle of nowhere, I'm having a heart attack really knowing that isn't going to change the game, is it, if I'm nowhere near a hospital that can help me?

Ali - Correct. But look you have to start somewhere right. It's like saying that if you put a car in my hand and I'm driving or you send me an ambulance but there is nothing on the other side and so on and so forth. Everything we do, every effort in technology starts somewhere and it gets better and better. So today we get you a doctor, tomorrow perhaps we can create the logistics to get you the drugs, and the day after we could do something else. There are so many people solving so many different areas of healthcare using technology that collectively, no-one on their own, collectively they will meld everything that is in existence in medicine today to create a completely new solution that would be miles better than what we have now. Just look at every other area from retail, to consumer shopping, to banking, what technology has done with it. And I'm sure healthcare will be another beneficiary.       



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