By Clifton Leaf
June 19, 2017

Of all the places where artificial intelligence is gaining a foothold, nowhere is the impact likely to be as great—at least in the near term—as in healthcare. A new report from Accenture Consulting, entitled Artificial Intelligence: Healthcare’s New Nervous System, projects the market for health-related AI to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 40% through 2021—to $6.6 billion, from around $600 million in 2014.

In that regard, the Accenture report, authored by senior managing director Matthew Collier and colleagues, echoes earlier assessments of the market. A comprehensive research briefing last September by CB Insights tech analyst Deepashri Varadharajan, for example—which tracked AI startups across industries from 2012 through the fall of 2016—showed healthcare dominating every other sector, from security and finance to sales & marketing. Varadharajan calculated there were 188 deals across various healthcare segments from Jan. 2012 to Sept. 2016, worth an aggregate $1.5 billion in global equity funding.

But the Accenture report suggests—and, I think smartly—that the biggest returns on investment for healthcare AI are likely to come from areas where the density (and dollar value) of deals isn’t that substantial right now. In terms of startup and deal volume, for instance, two hotshot areas have been medical imaging & diagnostics and drug discovery. Accenture’s analysis, though, points to 10 other AI applications that may return more bang for the buck.

Top of the list of investments that will likely pay for themselves (and then some) is robot-assisted surgery, Accenture says. “Cognitive robotics can integrate information from pre-op medical records with real-time operating metrics to physically guide and enhance the physician’s instrument precision,” explain the report’s authors. “The technology incorporates data from actual surgical experiences to inform new, improved techniques and insights.” The consultants estimate that the use of such surgical technology, which includes machine learning and other forms of AI, will result not only in better outcomes but also in a 21 percent reduction in the length of patient hospital stays. They estimate such smart robotic surgery will return $40 billion in “value,” or “potential annual benefits…by 2026.”

The second valuable use of AI, they project, will come from virtual nursing assistant applications ($20 billion in value)—which, in theory, will save money by letting medical providers remotely assess a patient’s symptoms and lessen the number of “unnecessary patient visits.” Next in line are intelligent applications for administrative workflow (worth $18 billion), fraud detection ($17 billion), and—fascinatingly—dosage error reduction ($16 billion).

“As these, and other AI applications gain more experience in the field, their ability to learn and act will continually lead to improvements in precision, efficiency and outcomes,” say the authors. It’s a compelling argument.

This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.

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