Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Robots, AI and virtual reality: The key to the future of patient-centred care?

Robot Hand
Written by
Nancy Dale

Nancy Dale

Canada’s healthcare sector is on the cusp of transformational change. Technology is redefining how people think about, access and support our healthcare system. Startups are driving massive innovations at the micro level with questions arising around ability to scale up. Precision medicine, personalized care and wellness plans based on genetics and a myriad of tools and technologies for the aging population (and the sandwich generation caring for them) are making their entrance. The tectonic plates of healthcare are shifting, creating opportunity for more companies to offer solutions to aid in the monumental task of providing care to a growing list of patients where one size no longer fits all.

Healthcare, as an industry and employer, lags behind many other industries, and Canada behind many other countries, when it comes it the adoption of innovations such as artificial intelligence. The risk of this slow adoption of new technologies means we aren’t capitalizing on the efficiencies and improvements innovation offers us; on the flip side, there is a world of untapped opportunity.

Patients have access to more information, more choice, are more empowered and have a clear idea of how they want their care delivered… on their terms. Let’s look at the opportunities and unintended consequences of three of the biggest innovations driving change in healthcare.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Until recently, AI usage was fairly abstract and somewhat sensational, a likely spillover from the Robocop era of the 80s. However, we now see organizations and governments using large-scale data sets with trillions of data points to help predict healthcare demand. AI and machine learning are addressing issues like emergency room overcrowding, wait times, and patient discharges. Predictive software is slowly being used in disease detection and prioritization of lab results, digital symptom checkers, scheduling and chat bots. AI-powered robots are even being introduced into long-term care homes to remind seniors to take their medications, play cognitive memory games and help with overall health monitoring and social engagement.

Dedicated AI experts have been elevated to the leadership table in Canada, as seen in talent investments like the one made by the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, when it recently appointed the first-ever Chair in Biomedical Informatics and Artificial Intelligence. While in terms of implementation, the healthcare sector still has leagues to go compared to other sectors like finance and insurance, this leaves opportunity to learn from these industries and take time to build trust and communicate with stakeholders, and consider the impacts of AI use.

It is important to remember that with the benefits, also comes limitations and risks. For example, The Atlantic last year highlighted a study which identified the risk of using data sets tainted by bias from a lack of diversity in patients. Moving forward, it becomes clear that these technologies need to be carefully considered in partnership with inclusivity and diversity principles, with greater awareness of unintended consequences. As such, AI is perhaps best used as a tool to augment the work of physicians, assisting in the organization of data at lightning speed, so that doctors can focus on patient care, relationships, trust and empathy.

Virtual care

Recent years have seen a steady increase in virtual care and videoconferencing as a method of patient care. In 2018, there were almost one million clinical video conference events in Ontario. Saving both patient time and health system budgets, virtual visits are one of the ways our health system is moving towards a more patient-centered approach to care, allowing patients to receive the care they need when and where they need it: in their own communities supported by their family and friends. The Ontario Government has signaled a commitment to expanding access to virtual care, with the report from the Premier’s Council highlighting the need for digital integration into our system: less than 1 % of appointments are conducted virtually at the moment.

No doubt, this is about to change with the increased availability of health monitoring tools and apps, as well as rising consumer and provider demand for access to virtual care tools. With a recent Canadian Medical Association survey finding that 7 out of 10 Canadians support virtual care, perhaps most patients just want to leave stale waiting rooms in the past.

Virtual reality

Once left to video game aficionados, virtual reality has also risen to the forefront, personalizing the patient care experience and assisting in health provider training. X-rays, CT and MRI scans can be turned into high-resolution 3D images, helping to better prepare surgeons ahead of an operation. Burn victims can benefit from the distraction of virtual reality experiences during painful dressing changes, and cancer patients can take themselves out of their hospital recliners to enjoy a stroll on the streets of Rome during long chemotherapy treatments.

Longer term, the opportunities these tools offer are endless and can help redefine traditionally unpleasant treatments and the patient experience as a whole. One thing is for sure, consumers as patients are no longer willing to sit back passively and wait while dated systems and processes define their healthcare experience.

Are you a healthcare provider with innovative, patient-centred ideas or a company that has digital solutions in healthcare delivery? Driving awareness and building relationships with your key audiences can seem like a daunting task. Talk to our Healthcare and Public Affairs teams to find out how we can best position you with government, consumers and other stakeholders in this evolving landscape.

——— Nancy Dale is a former Vice-President and Practice Lead, Healthcare at NATIONAL Public Relations