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EDITORIAL: The debate surrounding the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has generated much heated discussion in recent years.

While opinions on its ethical implications and societal impact continue to polarise public sentiment, governments, tech firms and healthcare providers will do well to take note of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) recommendations, released on January 18, on the ethics and governance of using AI in healthcare settings.

Given that the technology could have profound implications for how some of the biggest health challenges of our age are dealt with, the WHO’s recommendations are highly timely.

The astonishing progress of this technology in recent decades tells us that the payoffs of using generative AI and large multi-modal models (LMM) in healthcare – where algorithms trained on data sets can be used to generate new content – could be incredible.

As WHO highlights, there are five broad areas where the technology could be applied, starting from diagnosis, scientific research and drug development, medical and nursing education, clerical tasks, and patient-guided use, such as investigating symptoms.

As proponents of AI do not tire of pointing out, generative AI and LMMs have the potential to significantly speed up the discovery of treatments for previously incurable diseases, ranging from aggressive forms of cancer to dementia as well as holding the promise of developing new antibiotics to counteract microbial resistance, a problem that has been on the rise in recent years.

In addition, AI could very well democratise medical knowledge by sharing expertise worldwide, filling the gaping holes in access to quality care in poorer countries like ours.

Nevertheless, these huge positives also come with considerable risks that must not be ignored, and as WHO has rightly pointed out, it wouldn’t be wise to wait for the roll-out of AI technologies in healthcare settings to discover their flaws.

There have been documented risks that AI could produce false, inaccurate or incomplete outcomes. Moreover, the potential for biases in AI algorithms poses a risk to healthcare equity.

Algorithms trained on data sets that reflect cultural biases and are not diverse will incorporate those blind spots, often complicating healthcare outcomes for marginalised communities.

Given this, WHO’s recommendation to make use of “transparent information and policies to manage the design, development and use of LMMs” is especially important. In addition, the health body has also highlighted the lack of clear regulatory frameworks governing the use of AI.

The fact remains that governments all over the world haven’t kept pace with the rapidly evolving tech landscape, leading to notable gaps in legislations concerning the utilisation of technology, especially AI, and the operations of tech giants.

It is, therefore, crucial to establish regulations guiding the use of AI, including when it comes to ensuring patients’ data protection and privacy.

Striking a balance between innovation and regulation is essential to harness the full potential of these technologies while ensuring patient safety and ethical considerations.

The UN body has also emphasised the importance of involving medical professionals and patients in the development of AI models, and not leaving this at the behest of scientists and engineers alone.

This inclusive approach could ensure a more comprehensive understanding of healthcare nuances that prioritise considerations directly impacting patient well-being.

The implications of using AI in healthcare for developing countries like ours could be profound. From enhancing access to healthcare in underserved areas to improving diagnostics and treatments to reducing costs borne by healthcare systems, the use of AI could transform the lives of millions of people.

Governments all over the world, including ours, need to provide an enabling regulatory environment that helps unleash the potential this sector has, making the requisite investments in education and technology, as well protecting against the very obvious risks AI poses to human well-being.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

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