FORGET visions of Arnie-style Terminator robots posing a terrifying threat to humanity.
When it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI), most of us already interact with it every day, be it a chat with Alexa about the weather or using the self-checkout at a supermarket.
Now medics are harnessing its power to revolutionise our health.
From working to cut the Covid backlog to freeing up clinicians’ time, AI is helping make healthcare more efficient.
A study published last week found that the tech could help diagnose cancerous lesions in patients with inflammatory bowel disease.
It comes after the NHS revealed it will use AI to detect, screen and treat those at risk of hepatitis C in a bid to eradicate the life-threatening disease by 2030.
In fact, AI is already saving lives, as Emma McCormick knows. The 44-year-old, from West Sussex, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in April 2021.
And if it weren’t for the technology, plus Dr Alexandra Stewart and a team of talented radiotherapists at St Luke’s Cancer Centre in Guildford, she might not be alive today.
She says: “I probably delayed getting a smear test when I shouldn’t have done. With the lockdowns, everything felt on hold.”
Tests revealed a large tumour invading her cervix and womb, but Emma was in luck as she became the first patient to undergo groundbreaking AI radiotherapy treatment using what’s known as the Ethos machine.
The cutting-edge kit is able to map and deliver an accurate, sculpted radiotherapy plan that targets tumours, rather than just blasting everything in the vicinity.
“It’s a game changer, especially when the uterus and the cervix move a lot,” explains Dr Stewart.
“Now, if the cervix moves in a position we hadn’t predicted, we can cover that.”
And as the cancer shrinks with treatment, he says: “We can shrink the radiotherapy field to match.”
The machine learns from human input, explains Dr Stewart, so it won’t go rogue.
“It’s going to increase our chance of a cure for cervical cancer and decrease the risk of side-effects from treatment.
“That’s really, really important, because if we look back 20 years, patients have problems where they might not even be able to leave the house because their bowels are opening so frequently or they don’t have the bladder control.
‘Cleared up my cancer’
“To cure a patient’s cancer, but not give them any life they could easily live, is not a win.
“Whereas now, if we can cure the cancer and give them as few side-effects and let them live as normal a life as possible, then we’re truly winning because we’re giving them not only life, but as good a quality life as possible.”
It’s certainly transformed Emma’s life.
She tells SunHealth: “I’m very grateful for it because it obviously cleared up my cancer, got rid of the tumour and did what it was supposed to.
“I’m extremely grateful for Dr Stewart offering that to me, and I hope the data they got from me helps other people.”
While Emma is a big fan, many people fear AI technology could mean robots will ultimately replace medics.
Emma Selby, a specialist mental health nurse consultant and clinical lead at pioneering mental health app Wysa, says: “Automation can feel quite scary, mainly because most people think of AI like the Terminator, which it’s not.”
Dr Sheeba Irshad, an oncologist at Guy’s & St Thomas’ hospital, agrees. She says: “There is a myth that AI will replace humans in some way or it’s healthcare staff versus technology, but I don’t see it like that.
“Healthcare professionals are highly trained individuals, particularly in the NHS — they can’t be replaced.”
She adds: “Technology can help us make things better for our patients.
“I see it as a collaboration between technology and healthcare rather than it being us versus them.”