MedInfo 2023: AI will transform health care — Australia should seize the moment

By Prof Farah Magrabi* and Dr Martin Seneviratne*
Tuesday, 11 July, 2023

MedInfo 2023: AI will transform health care — Australia should seize the moment

More than 2500 delegates are attending MedInfo 2023, the World Congress on Medical and Health Informatics, a major biennial conference, in Sydney this week. Generative AI is a hot topic at the conference.

In this effervescent moment of AI renaissance triggered by ChatGPT, health is one of the most active arenas. Both the academic community and the world’s largest technology companies are racing to figure out how to wrangle these generative AI models appropriately in health care. We have already seen clinicians using them to write their notes, predict patient outcomes, summarise research literature, even, according to some, improve their bedside manner. There are tools for patients to help translate medical jargon and access interactive health content via chatbots. Every day the list expands.

The potential for impact is great but the risks are steep. Professional bodies and regulators are scrambling to understand and address issues like bias and privacy. The WHO has urged caution and the AMA has called for national regulations around the use of AI in health, following a ban on doctors using ChatGPT in one health network in Western Australia.

The market stakes are equally high. These models offer an opportunity to democratise access to care; however, there may also be a winner-takes-all phenomenon due to the concept of emergence, where we observe step changes in performance as models grow larger. In other words, all of a sudden a task that was impossible becomes possible with a larger model. Organisations, health systems and nations that establish beachheads early will be at a distinct advantage. There is a risk of missing the boat.

Australia has historically punched above its weight in both the information technology and healthcare domains, with world-first innovations from Wi-Fi to the cochlear implant. Health AI could, and should, be another of these technological verticals that Australia becomes recognised for internationally. To do this, we need to leverage the assets we have: data, workforce and regulatory infrastructure.

High-quality data is the fuel for effective AI systems. Despite a relatively small population, Australia has some of the largest unified health datasets in the world thanks to longstanding research registries, shared health records and a highly consolidated private healthcare system. However, these datasets are not being harnessed to their full extent. We have seen Silicon Valley companies come to Australia for these data assets — often taking the IP offshore, just as raw minerals are dug up and processed elsewhere. We should be growing AI technologies in-house by supporting privacy-preserving mechanisms for researchers and industry to leverage local data assets.

Secondly, we need to nurture a specialised health AI workforce by building bridges between the technical and clinical sides of this hybrid field. The technical talent is here thanks to academic institutions like the CSIRO and the Australian Institute of Machine Learning, alongside the reported ‘brain-gain’ during the pandemic of talented Australians moving home. Meanwhile, Australia is blessed with a world-class clinical workforce, among whom there is a growing appetite for hybrid careers involving technology. We now need to transform health AI from a niche sub-sector into a much more established community of practice, through targeted education programs, cross-sector collaboration forums and adoption of the digital health workforce strategy under development.

Finally, we must set the temperature right on the regulatory landscape to encourage safe innovation. Australia has become a go-to destination for clinical trials in the pharmaceuticals industry because of efficient regulatory approvals and rigorous clinical governance. We should be leveraging that same infrastructure for safely sandboxing health AI. Australia has become an early leader in the fast-changing space of health AI safety. We were among the first countries to adopt an AI Ethics Framework and have even seen community-led recommendations for AI in health care. The federal government has been proactive in recently launching a cross-sector consultation on safe and responsible AI. We now need to translate that into a practical infrastructure for trialling and regulating health AI tools. Few countries are better equipped to do this.

The Congress in Darling Harbour was the result of a bid made several years ago by the Australian Institute of Digital Health, when the sector looked very different. Today there is a window of opportunity for Australia to rise and lead in this new era of health AI. We must leverage our homegrown data assets, build an intersectional workforce and create the regulatory landscape to safely translate these technologies to the bedside. Now is the generational-shift moment to lay these foundations.

*Prof Farah Magrabi and Dr Martin Seneviratne are Co-Chairs of the 19th World Congress on Medical and Health Informatics, ICC Sydney, 8–12 July. Farah Magrabi is a Professor of Biomedical and Health Informatics at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation, Macquarie University. She is an internationally recognised expert in the design and evaluation of digital health and artificial intelligence technologies for clinicians and consumers. Martin Seneviratne is a doctor turned data scientist, specialising in machine learning over electronic health records (EHR). For the past four years, he worked at Google Health and DeepMind on EHR projects. Prior to Google, Martin was a research fellow in biomedical informatics at Stanford and worked as a junior doctor in NSW Health.

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