Emerging Technologies

6 ways AI is transforming global health

AI is not only helping healthcare workers save time, but also lives.

AI is not only helping healthcare workers save time, but also lives. Image: Unsplash/Irwan

Tom Crowfoot
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Global Health

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Generative AI could add trillions of dollars to the global economy over the coming years as it boosts worker productivity across industries.
  • The healthcare industry is one such sector seeing these benefits – from mental health chatbots to better cancer diagnosis and treatment, AI is helping to improve global healthcare in a variety of ways.
  • Innovations and guardrails around AI and other advanced technologies will be major topics of discussion at the Forum's Annual Meeting 2024.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been transforming a variety of industries for decades now, allowing companies to automate mundane tasks that would otherwise drain hours from workers’ days.

Over the past year, one particular branch – generative AI – has been thrust into the limelight following the release of ChatGPT in November 2022.

Generative AI could add trillions of dollars in value to the global economy, enabling labour productivity growth of 0.1 to 0.6% annually through 2040, according to McKinsey.

Global healthcare systems are under more pressure than ever before, due to challenges such as climate change and supply chain problems. But emerging technologies such as AI and machine learning are helping to alleviate these stresses, from speeding up drug development to reducing healthcare workers’ admin loads.

A graphic showing US adult opinions on AI usage in healthcare.
Attitudes to the use of AI in healthcare are changing. Image: Pew Research Center

Here are six ways AI is improving healthcare around the world.

1. AI could predict heart attack risk up to 10 years into the future

Researchers at the University of Oxford have studied how AI might improve the accuracy of cardiac CT scans, which help detect artery blockages or small narrowings that can lead to heart attacks.

While CT scans often struggle to pick up these issues, AI is more thorough in its analysis, resulting in more accurate diagnosis and treatment plans, UK newspaper The Guardian reports.

The study found that the technology was able to improve treatment for up to 45% of patients, with the potential to save the lives of thousands of people.

2. MIT’s AI tool can predict lung cancer risk up to six years in advance

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide, killing just under 1.8 million people in 2020.

Using a single low-dose chest scan, the AI model “Sybil” can predict the risk of lung cancers occurring 1-6 years after a screening.

The UK government recently announced a £21 million funding boost to 64 NHS trusts across England to roll out AI tools that can speed up the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer.

3. Improving drug discovery by using AI

At present, it costs around $2.5 billion to bring a new drug to market, across an average period of 12-15 years, according to a Wellcome report.

To cut costs, while improving speed and probability of success, scientists are beginning to use AI to aid drug discovery.

From vaccine design to toxicity testing, here’s how it's being used.

Recently, scientists used deep learning models to uncover a new class of antibiotics for drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. This breakthrough is significant as infections with MRSA can range from mild skin infections to more severe and potentially life-threatening conditions such as pneumonia.

4. Easing documentation processes

Generative AI’s ability to handle vast amounts of data makes it a prime candidate for automating this tedious, time-consuming and error-prone element of healthcare work.

Currently, this technology is being tested by healthcare professionals in key areas of documentation such as completing visit summaries or providing relevant research to support patient decisions.

5. Helping manage chronic pain

Given that about 20% of US adults suffer from chronic pain, this is a key area of healthcare where AI could help make a difference.

For example, AI is helping to identify environmental factors that affect pain levels, from diet to physical activity. Apps like PainScale use AI to help spot patterns from the data patients input, determining which factors are worsening, or alleviating, a person’s pain.

Another tool called Ellipsis is being trialled by some therapists to help spot the deterioration of a patient’s mental health by identifying changes in their voice.

Research suggests that a patient’s mental state and their physical pain levels are deeply intertwined, so being able to track this is important in managing their pain levels.

A graphic showing the negative views of US adults towards AI use in prescribing pain medication.
AI is being used in the management of chronic pain, but attitudes are slow to change. Image: Pew Research Center

6. Chatbots for mental health or general patient support

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of chatbots in healthcare. From COVID-19 symptom-checking to scheduling appointments, they are helping save hours of healthcare professionals’ time.

Now, AI chatbots are also being used to support people’s mental health. One tool, called Wysa, can listen to its users and respond using evidence-based techniques to help them feel better and build mental resilience.

AI’s future in healthcare must be carefully governed


How is the World Economic Forum creating guardrails for Artificial Intelligence?

Through collaboration, responsible application and scaling of successful experiments, the world can unlock AI’s full health-industry potential, leading to better health outcomes worldwide.

To help ensure the responsible application of AI across industries, the World Economic Forum held its AI Governance Summit in November 2023. Over 200 AI leaders from around the world convened in San Francisco to share ideas about the ethical and safe development and deployment of AI on a global scale.

“In an ever-evolving AI landscape, the urgency to drive responsible AI development has never been more pressing. Thus, the call to action is clear: the time has come for us, through global collaboration, innovative and practical steps, to collectively guide AI onto a trajectory that fosters ethical and inclusive advances and societal well-being,” said Cathy Li, Head, AI, Data and Metaverse; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva.

AI will also be high on the agenda at the Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland from 15-19 January. You can watch all of the sessions live here.

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Emerging TechnologiesHealth and Healthcare SystemsForum Institutional
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