Healthcare meets AI: new opportunities and new risks

“The development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher degree of accuracy than is possible by human beings opens up a whole new field of medical research and gives us a new weapon in our armoury in the fight against disease”. The Prime Minister delivered these words in Macclesfield, where she had travelled to announce her Government’s vision of a project using artificial intelligence (AI) to cross-refer individual patients’ records – lifestyle, medical history, and genetics – to reserves of national data in order to identify those in the early stages of cancer.

This announcement reminds us of the increasing degree of attention that AI projects in the medical field are generating. Moorfields Eye Hospital, for instance, in partnership with Google’s DeepMind, is exploring the ability of AI systems to analyse images captured during eye scans and provide accurate and rapid diagnoses.

The sort of analyses that DeepMind is being applied to are currently performed manually by doctors, and the waiting times that can be incurred as a result of this can delay patients’ access to the care that they require. It is expected that the automation of these routine diagnostic procedures will help to overcome this barrier to treatment.

In another example of an AI tool being trained to perform analyses that conventionally require the attention of a trained doctor, health technology enterprise Verily – again of the Google family – developed an algorithm to study images of the interior of patients’ eyes in order to predict the occurrence of cardiovascular disease.

Verily’s system is of note for two reasons. Firstly, it has been demonstrated to be about as good as human doctors at recognising patients who have recently suffered a cardiovascular event. While the technology might be a long way from being implemented universally, this is an early and promising indicator of its viability. Secondly, since this tool has been able to predict cardiovascular disease, it potentially has the ability to perform diagnoses that currently require the use of an invasive blood test. This, if practicable, would improve patients’ experiences while reducing the demand on doctors’ and technicians’ time.

Medical AI technology is not, despite the impression given by these headline-grabbing examples, the exclusive domain of giants like Google. A 2017 study, for example, found Europe to be home to over 400 AI startups, 32 of which were in the “health and medicine” space. Like in any other industry at the cutting edge of technology, the value of a young AI company is largely in the unique ideas behind its product – and in how well those ideas are protected.

As Matthew Hoyles explains for Innovation Enterprise, patent protection can be invaluable for startups hoping to secure investment, partnerships or licensing opportunities – but is riddled with potential pitfalls for those seeking to protect ideas in the AI sphere. The British and European patent offices both exclude computer programs “as such” from patentability, and this can lead to potentially fatal objections against patent applications that have not been prepared in a way that takes account of these exclusions. A growing AI company should work with its patent attorneys to identify its patentable ideas and develop an IP strategy that affords it the best possible protection for its innovations.

If you would like to explore patent protection for innovations in medical technology and artificial intelligence, please get in touch with one of our specialist MedTech or Computer Technology attorneys.