What happened?

The application of Artificial Intelligence in healthcare is making rapid progress in diagnostics and especially in the automated analysis of medical imagery, e.g. to detect cancers. Recent studies have shown that Artificial Intelligence, in some cases, can already outperform doctors in the interpretation of cancer imaging and are also increasingly able to predict (some forms of) cancer before they are visible as such on the imagery. Currently, the focus of such studies is on improving the quality of the diagnosis and treatment, but they could also result in tremendous cost savings. The latter is bound to lead to the democratization of preventive screening technologies that are currently only available to wealthy individuals.

What does this mean?

Public programs for preventive screening are limited to specific diseases, e.g. breast cancer, and target specific groups only, e.g. elderly women. This is mainly due to the costs of screening in relation to expected health gains. In practice, this means that screening is only available for relatively common diseases for which early treatment is particularly effective. When human doctors are no longer needed to interpret images (or when a radical increase of their productivity can be realized), the balance is likely to shift towards more screening and eventually to the kind of precautionary full-body scans that are currently only offered by private clinics.

What’s next?

Automated diagnosis without interference from a real doctor is still taboo. This is mostly out of fear of poor quality and because a doctor is deemed necessary to help a patient understand the implications of a diagnosis (see also this week’s note about the continuing need for human doctors). The same is still true for direct-to-consumer genetic tests from companies such as 23andMe, which are only allowed (in the U.S.) to test for a limited number of hereditary diseases. Over time, when automated diagnosis outperforms medical specialists, societal pressure is likely to do away with this taboo and allow all people to enjoy the individual and societal benefits of early preventive full-body scanning. The question, then, is how this will change our perception of our body and whether this development will increase anxieties instead of reassuring us.