AI a ‘necessity’ in Saudi healthcare, but will never replace doctors: Hospital chief

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Artificial intelligence will not replace physicians, but rather empower them to match Saudi Arabia’s rapidly modernizing healthcare system, the Chief Information Officer of one of the Kingdom’s leading hospitals told Al Arabiya English.

As Saudi Arabia continues to make strides towards modernizing healthcare, the Kingdom is leveraging the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to transform the landscape of patient care.

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“We believe AI’s role is to empower medical professionals to do and achieve more rather than replace human intelligence,” Osama Alswailem of Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre (KFSH&RC) said.

“Yes, AI has emerged as a powerful tool in healthcare, revolutionizing how we provide and receive medical care,” the Chief Information Officer said.

“One of the most significant benefits of AI in healthcare is its ability to increase productivity and service utilization, enabling physicians to focus more on patient care and less on administrative tasks.”

“AI, for example, can assist physicians with various daily operations, such as reviewing medical images, analyzing patient data, and identifying potential health risks.”

“AI is designed to work alongside human experts, providing them with additional insights and support. And while AI has the potential to move into clinical decision making, it is not yet ready to take on this role. This is because there need to be more generalized best practices for AI in healthcare and a transparent regulation process certifying AI solutions as evidence-based medicine tools.”

As cutting-edge technologies continue to evolve, the integration of AI in healthcare systems has emerged as a catalyst for ground-breaking advancements, revolutionizing diagnostics, treatment, and patient outcomes.

Alswailem said, with a growing population and an increasing demand for better healthcare outcomes and experiences, there is significant pressure on healthcare systems. And as healthcare needs become more complex, there is a need for more resilient and adaptable healthcare systems that can quickly respond to unforeseen challenges.

‘Not a luxury, a necessity’

“Today, the adoption of advancing Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare is not just a luxury but a necessity,” Alswailem told Al Arabiya English. “AI is a natural next step on top of a mature digital health infrastructure, which includes informatics, data warehouses, and other tools.”

In healthcare, four critical dimensions, including outcomes, experience, cost, and access to care, require extensive administrative and operational support, where AI has become a crucial player,” explained Alswailem.

“For instance, AI can assist clinicians in reviewing chest X-rays more efficiently and reducing review time by 50 percent or more.”

“However, it is important to note that the clinician still needs to verify the AI outcome, as we cannot solely depend on AI for clinical decisions due to generalization issues.”

Building upon the Vision 2030 initiative, which emphasizes diversification and technological innovation, the Saudi government has embarked on an ambitious journey to integrate AI across various sectors, including healthcare. The progressive implementation of AI in hospitals and medical facilities is set to bolster the Kingdom’s healthcare infrastructure and elevate its position on the global stage.

Leveraging AI

KFSH&RC is heavily investing in the latest technologies and solutions to provide care to its patients, said Alswailem.

“We established the Center for Healthcare Intelligence (CHI) at KFSH&RC in 2019 to promote time and cost efficiencies within the hospital. CHI gathers useful data-driven insights in real-time from the EHR system across its different departments and main facilities in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Madina. The insights gathered help enhance clinical and operational procedures.”

“CHI assists in locating places where procedures may be simplified and resources can be used more effectively. It also makes staffing decisions easier and ensures that resources are used wisely by forecasting patient volumes using predictive analytics. Additionally, CHI uses machine learning algorithms to recognize patients at risk for readmission, enabling early interventions to reduce readmissions and related costs.”

Subsequently, in 2022, KFSH&RC introduced the Capacity and Command Centre, which also employs AI, descriptive and predictive analytics to help improve management of patient flow and volume, experience, and safety.

Since its inception, the center has completed more than 86,450 interventions, reducing patient wait times in the lab by 52.1 percent, in the pharmacy by 27 percent, and in emergency medicine LOS by 6 percent while also increasing capacity to accommodate emergency visits by 21.4 percent.

AI lacks human qualities

As crucial as AI is in improving healthcare outcomes, it cannot replace human qualities such as empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence, said Alswailem.

“These human abilities are essential in building trusting relationships with patients, understanding their unique needs and circumstances, and providing them with personalized care that considers their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Our commitment to holistic healthcare ensures that patients receive top-quality medical care and a compassionate and supportive environment that prioritizes their overall well-being.”

And yet, AI technology in healthcare can enhance the quality of care and achieve better outcomes, experiences, cost-effectiveness, and access to care.

As such, AI development has become a national priority under the Healthcare Transformation Program’s Vision 2030 and the National Strategy for Data and AI in Saudi Arabia, reflecting a collective effort to leverage AI in improving the lives of Saudi citizens, said Alswailem.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has already implemented AI in healthcare in various ways, including remote patient monitoring, medical imaging analysis, predictive analytics, robot-assisted surgery, and chatbots and virtual assistants.

Revolutionizing healthcare

These AI-powered tools and systems have the potential to revolutionize healthcare delivery and improve patient outcomes.

At the forefront of this AI-driven healthcare revolution is the deployment of intelligent diagnostic systems capable of accurately detecting diseases and conditions.

Utilizing powerful algorithms, machine learning models, and massive data sets, AI technologies aid in rapid and precise diagnosis, reducing human error and streamlining the diagnostic process. Physicians and healthcare professionals in Saudi Arabia are now equipped with AI-powered tools that enable them to detect diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disorders, and respiratory conditions at earlier stages, ultimately saving lives and improving patient prognosis.

“At the King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre (KFSH&RC)…our AI-driven systems help to streamline operations, decrease patient wait times, promote operation room efficiency, and identify patients at risk of complications for early intervention and agile care,” said Alswailem. “With our focus on data-driven economies and machine learning, we aim to optimize the development and integration of AI in healthcare, both locally and internationally.”

AI-powered tools and systems have the potential to revolutionize healthcare delivery and improve patient outcomes. (File photo)
AI-powered tools and systems have the potential to revolutionize healthcare delivery and improve patient outcomes. (File photo)

Alswailem said the vast potential of AI is far-reaching.

He pointed out that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals faced immense pressure and challenges in serving the high volume of patients seeking care.

Tertiary care centers, in particular, were overwhelmed with patients seeking specialized treatment. “In such cases, AI can play a critical role in helping identify patients with high severity who require immediate attention, allowing for faster triage and appropriate allocation of resources,” he said. “Moreover, for individuals living in rural or remote areas with limited access to healthcare facilities, AI-powered digital health tools can assist in identifying patients who require in-person medical attention versus those who may be suitable for virtual consultations, thus improving access to care and optimizing resource allocation.”

“By using AI to make these determinations, healthcare practitioners can ensure that patients receive the appropriate level of care while reducing the burden on healthcare facilities and providers.”

Streamlining operations

In terms of operations, AI can also help streamline administrative tasks, such as scheduling appointments and managing medical records, which can save time and reduce errors.

In improving healthcare education, AI can assist in training healthcare professionals by simulating medical scenarios and providing personalized feedback, which can better their skills and confidence.

Furthermore, AI is playing a pivotal role in enhancing personalized treatment plans for patients. By analyzing extensive patient data, AI algorithms can swiftly identify patterns, predict disease progression, and recommend tailored therapies. This data-driven approach is enabling healthcare providers to offer personalized treatment regimens, empowering patients with the best possible care and outcomes.

Moreover, AI-powered virtual assistants are now facilitating patient-doctor communication, allowing individuals to access medical advice, monitor their health conditions remotely, and receive timely support, especially in rural and underserved areas.

“On the clinical side, AI can also help healthcare providers assess patient risk and develop personalized treatment plans based on their unique medical history and genetic makeup.,” said Alswailem. “To augment tailored care, AI-powered monitoring devices, such as wearables, can track patients’ vital signs and provide real-time data to healthcare providers, enabling them to monitor and manage chronic conditions more effectively and efficiently. Additionally, AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can provide 24/7 support and guidance, which can enhance patient satisfaction and engagement.”

Leading the AI-race

Alswailem said Saudi Arabia is a leader in AI, with a critical role in the projected AI market growth of the MENA region to $8.4 billion by 2026.

In addition, Saudi Arabia is the second nation with the greatest knowledge and awareness of AI’s benefits, according to the 2023 Artificial Intelligence Index Report by Stanford University.

KFSH&RC has recently inaugurated the ‘Digital Health Conference’ in Riyadh, with the theme ‘Applied Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare,’ which introduced ‘SPInE’ (Strategic Partner in Innovation & Excellence), a new global initiative to transform healthcare using emerging technologies by partnering with the best minds in healthcare and tech.

“This initiative envisions a future in which AI capabilities will transform how we diagnose diseases, develop customized treatment plans, discover new drugs, and ultimately predict and prevent health conditions,” said Alswailem. “Patients will benefit from faster, more accurate diagnoses and personalized treatments through the initiative, which has the potential to significantly improve health outcomes, reduce costs, and create new markets.

“Predictive insights and optimized workflows will benefit doctors and healthcare providers, while pharmaceutical companies can discover new drugs faster. Through SPInE, we hope to empower our healthcare systems to transition from a reactive to a preventive and predictive model.”

“Looking ahead, AI technology has the potential to revolutionize clinical outcomes by reducing the risk of human error and enabling more accurate and timely diagnoses. This will certainly lead to improved patient outcomes, reduced hospital stays, and a better quality of life for patients.”

“AI will also play a critical role in reducing the risk of medical errors by providing real-time alerts and recommendations to healthcare providers, ensuring they have the most up-to-date information. And with the continuous advancements in AI technology, its use in healthcare will become increasingly prevalent, resulting in improved patient care and clinical outcomes.”

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