WHO guidance on artificial intelligence in healthcare

June 30, 2021

Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds great promise for improving the delivery of healthcare and medicine worldwide, but only if ethics and human rights are put at the heart of its design, deployment, and use, the World Health Organization (WHO) says in a guidance as reported in a news release.

The report, Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence for Health, is the result of 2 years of consultations held by a panel of international experts appointed by WHO.

Artificial intelligence can be used to improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis and screening for diseases; to assist with clinical care; strengthen health research and drug development, and support diverse public health interventions, such as disease surveillance, outbreak response, and health systems management.

AI can also empower patients to take greater control of their own healthcare and better understand their evolving needs. It could also enable resource-poor countries and rural communities, where patients often have restricted access to healthcare workers or medical professionals, to bridge gaps in access to health services.

However, WHO’s new report cautions against overestimating the benefits of AI for health, especially when this occurs at the expense of core investments and strategies required to achieve universal access to healthcare services.

It also points out that opportunities are linked to challenges and risks, including unethical collection and use of health data, biases encoded in algorithms, and risks of AI to patient safety, cybersecurity, and the environment.

For example, while private and public sector investment in the development and deployment of AI is critical, the unregulated use of AI could subordinate the rights and interests of patients and communities to the powerful commercial interests of technology companies or the interests of governments in surveillance and social control, the WHO said.

The report also emphasizes that systems trained primarily on data collected from individuals in high-income countries may not perform well for individuals in low- and middle-income settings.

AI systems should be carefully designed to reflect the diversity of socio-economic and healthcare settings. They should be accompanied by training in digital skills, community engagement and awareness-raising, especially for millions of healthcare workers who will require digital literacy or retraining if their roles and functions are automated, and who must contend with machines that could challenge the decision-making and autonomy of providers and patients, the WHO recommends.

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