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How will the cyberattack influence health service’s use of AI?

The impact of the recent cyberattack on the HSE has highlighted the health service’s increasing dependence on technology. The ransomware strike had the effect of practically shutting down many services in hospitals and other healthcare settings. The effects of the incident continue to be felt weeks later by healthcare professionals and patients.
The answer to the cyberattack will not be a return to the days of pen and paper. In fact, dependence on technology will only grow in the coming years. In this issue of the Medical Independent, we publish a feature on artificial intelligence (AI) and what it means for healthcare.

In April, the third national AI Summit was held. The Summit, which came as Ireland develops its first AI strategy, featured a presentation by Prof Martin Curley, HSE Director of the Digital Transformation and Open Innovation. Prof Curley said the HSE’s “ambition is to move Ireland from being a digital health laggard, to a digital health leader”. This comment is more striking after the recent cyberattack, which made it clear just how far the Executive is from being a ‘digital leader’. While healthcare in general is behind other industries when it comes to AI, other OECD health services are much further along the road than Ireland in the utilisation of the technology.

The Sláintecare Action Plan 2019 committed to research on the potential impact of AI, robotics and other technologies on workforce planning and services. This research, however, was delayed due to Covid-19 and its findings remain under consideration. While the forthcoming national strategy does not just apply to healthcare, it is likely to outline a path for how AI can be applied in the sector. Healthcare is constantly evolving, and AI will play its part in that evolution. Concerns that the technology will herald the replacement of doctors are premature. Regarding radiology, where AI is already being innovatively applied in the diagnostic process, it is regarded as another tool.

A cutting-edge tool, but a tool nonetheless. And one which is not foolproof and still relies on clinician intervention and judgement. As our reliance on technology grows, so do the risks. For every problem solved, there is a potential danger, especially if proper safeguards are not put in place. The use of AI in healthcare poses a number of challenges, including those of an ethical nature. Quite how the recent cyberattack will factor into the new strategy and greater integration of AI into healthcare remains to be seen. We don’t need to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Terminator for a lesson in the possible perils of technology, but only witness what has happened to our hospitals in the last number of weeks.

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