When artificial intelligence bots are not dreaming of becoming a sentient being or stealing nuclear codes, they are rapidly revolutionising healthcare as we know it.
While recent AI advances have us in a state of hysteria, particularly with the rise of the AI Chatbot GPT, the uptake of AI and robotics in the healthcare space is quickly solidifying its place in modern medicine. One of the spin-offs of COVID-19 was to catapult healthcare organisations around the world to start field-testing new AI-supported technologies, such as algorithms to support medical professionals in clinical settings and ongoing research. These advancements in turn attracted further significant funding.
Although the overall standards for the use of robotics and AI in medicine are still being defined and the law is playing catch-up, these advancements offer opportunities that benefit clinicians, researchers and patients.
What is happening in this space?
Over 60,000 robotic medical procedures have been performed in Australia since the technology was introduced in the 1980s. The computer-controlled robotic 'arms' that guide cameras, imaging tools and miniaturised surgical instruments enable surgeons to perform minimally invasive procedures with enhanced precision, flexibility and control compared to conventional methods.
AI has the ability to absorb and analyse masses of information almost instantaneously, picking up trends and even the most microscopic differences, which can provide real-time surgical feedback to analyse how best to tackle a problem that arises during surgery.
Rehabilitation Robotics and AI Engaged Prosthetics
Robotics are used in physical therapy and rehabilitation to aid patients in regaining mobility and function after injuries or surgeries. AI is being used to give prosthetics the autonomy to perform actions without manual intervention from the user.
AI algorithms can analyse medical images, pathology slides, and patient data to assist in identifying patterns, classify abnormalities, and provide quantitative assessments, supporting healthcare professionals in making accurate and timely diagnoses.
AI-Powered Predictive Analytics and Health Monitoring
AI models can analyse patient data, electronic health records and genomic information to predict disease progression, identify high-risk patients, and inform treatment decisions which allows for personalised care plans and interventions.
AI-Driven Drug Discovery
AI has emerged as a leading and cost effective tool in drug research and development, given its ability to analyse abundant and high-dimensional data which aids the discovery of drug targets, pre-clinical research, clinical trial design, and post-market surveillance.
Healthcare Delivery Optimisation
AI continues to be used to optimise healthcare operations for tasks such as managing patient records, scheduling appointments and co-ordinating care.
Virtual AI-powered Nursing Assistants
They offer personalised guidance to patients, providing education, monitoring, medication reminders and support for managing chronic conditions.
They have been successfully trialled across a number of hospitals in Australia to provide education to and engagement with patients.
The application of AI that is empathetic has proven effective, particularly in mental healthcare, with the technology able to diagnose, devise an appropriate response and help practitioners better understand, monitor and interpret the emotion and well-being of patients.
How is the law in Australia evolving in the wake of the Doctor Bot advancements?
Australia has no specific legislation that regulates AI technology, but there are voluntary frameworks. In April 2022, the Australian Medical Association put forward a submission to the Government’s Digital Technology Taskforce on Automated Decision Making and AI Regulation which highlighted that AI in the healthcare/medical field is unique and requires more meticulous consideration than a one-size fits all approach. Submissions to the Taskforce have closed with a discussion paper eagerly awaited.
Medical negligence and product liability claims will inevitably become entangled with a pinch of contractual indemnity arguments thrown in for good measure. What becomes of the surgeon who is assisted by imaging or an algorithm and a complication eventuates? What if the complication falls within the risks of surgery? Was the risk consented to and how fulsome was the consenting process? These claims will involve questions of ownership and responsibility for the robotics/AI, whether any liability can be passed on to the designers/developers and which party bears the onus of proving what went wrong. The law needs to play catch up in terms of who owes a duty of care and how far consumer guarantees extend, what constitutes informed consent and the disciplines that might provide expert evidence on questions of breach and causation. Consideration will also need to be given to what extent any loss might be covered by insurance.
Healthcare providers that utilise robotics/AI in relation to surgeries or their decision-making process will need to focus on implementing informed consent protocols so patients are appraised of the role of these technologies in their treatment, together with risks and potential benefits of their use.
Privacy and Data Protection
Sensitive patient data utilised in the context of robotics/AI in healthcare, has unsurprisingly raised concerns about how that data is protected and kept private. The looming risk of data breaches must see healthcare providers and technology developers comply with data protection laws. These privacy laws must also evolve to address the rapid privacy paradigm shift posed by AI.
Robotics and AI raise ethical questions related to decision-making, privacy, autonomy, and the boundaries of technology in healthcare. Determining the ethical and moral implications of using these technologies is an ongoing debate and may require legal frameworks to establish guidelines for their responsible and ethical use.
Bias and Discrimination
AI algorithms used in healthcare may exhibit bias which have the potential to lead to discriminatory outcomes in patient care. Addressing this bias and ensuring fairness are important legal considerations.
Is there a finger on the pulse?
Whilst on the one hand robotics and AI are being heralded as the heroes of modern medicine, many advocates of technological advancement are now becoming sceptics, warning that the adoption of this technology must be halted given the risks they pose to life as we know it. Perhaps it is already too late to stop what has been put into motion or maybe this is a question best put to Doctor Bot itself.