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Can Google's DeepMind Help Fix A Broken Health Care System?

Though it's promising, some experts say that artificial intelligence won't be more than just a Band-Aid.

[Photo: Flickr user NIH Image Gallery/Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health]

Google wants to put its artificial intelligence technology to use in top hospitals. Earlier this week, the search giant announced it would work with the U.K.'s National Health Service, or NHS, to alert staff to patients at risk of serious complications due to kidney failure.

Details about the technology are fairly thin on the ground at this stage. But it is known that Google DeepMind recently acquired an app called Hark, which is a task management app that aims to replace paper-based systems and pagers. Hark was developed over four years by a team at Imperial College London, which is one of the U.K.'s top medical schools. That effort was led by Ara Darzi, a high-profile surgeon who who runs Imperial's Institute of Global Health Innovation.

"The app is quite a good one," says Cosima Gretton, a junior doctor with the NHS in London, who spoke to Fast Company via Skype. "If a patient is in trouble, the nurse will message the doctor on Hark and indicate the level of priority." The initial focus for the app is acute kidney injuries.

Hark App

Hark, which has been piloted at Imperial College's hospitals, has been used by doctors to prioritize tasks and communicate with nurses. For the time being, Hark doesn't leverage artificial intelligence to predict which patients are most likely to get seriously ill and determine the best course of action. But Mustafa Suleyman, cofounder and head of applied artificial intelligence at DeepMind, told the Guardian "that may change in the future."

But some health experts fear that this kind of technology is just putting a Band-Aid on a broken system. The NHS is facing myriad problems with its IT systems compounded by a string of failed software investments.

"Some people have this utopian plan that you can sprinkle some AI on a broken health system and make things better," says Jordan Shlain, a Bay Area-based doctor and entrepreneur who has advised the NHS.

Moreover, as Shlain points out, it will be a challenge for this technology to scale to other NHS hospitals. Gretton agrees: Each individual hospital has control over the kind of software they buy, she says, and these contracts often last 10 or 15 years. In Gretton's hospital alone, there are 19 different systems that don't communicate with each other.

But in the future, she says, it's a "powerful offer" if Google DeepMind can help existing software communicate and incorporate basic artificial intelligence, that may have a real impact on improving patient safety.

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