How AI is transforming healthcare

24 August 2020

6 minute read

When a lethal disease hit London’s Soho neighbourhood, killing 616 people, it was believed that it was spread by noxious bad air. For those of us that are living through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, this may sound all too familiar. But it was in 1854 that this crisis led to a remarkable discovery.

Dr John Snow mapped the location of the deaths and spoke with local residents. This enabled him to pinpoint a water pump on Broad Street as being the point of infection. Snow’s use of data analytics was the inception of epidemiology. Community waste and water systems were upgraded all over the world, creating a huge and long-lasting improvement in public health.

Today, healthcare outcomes continue to be dramatically improved through the use of data analytics and machine learning (ML), including in the fight against COVID-19.

The potential to reshape economies and industries

Breakthrough status was recently granted to an early detection, multi-cancer blood test in May 2019, created by Grail, a Silicon Valley healthcare company1. The test combines advanced data analysis of a patient’s blood with artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and large data sets to detect very early-stage cancers.

The test can identify a strong signal for 50 cancer types across all stages, the company’s clinical research programme shows. It has less than 1% of false positives2.  The innovative technology has already been invested in by Amazon, Tencent and Bill Gates. It is only possible because of recent advances in AI and cloud-based data analytics. There will be profound implications for many healthcare business models if Grail successfully produces a widely-used and low-cost version of this test.

About 21% of American’s national consumer spending goes on healthcare. From chemotherapy, inpatient hospital care, outpatient care and drugs that can exceed US$400k, roughly US$80bn is spent on cancer treatment every year3. A blood test costing under US$1,000 that identifies cancer at an early stage - when treatment is much cheaper - will be significant to both the industry and the economy.

At every stage of the patient journey, across the globe, there are opportunities to progress healthcare using AI. Wearable technology is encouraging individuals to make healthier choices and ML neural networks are already giving much faster, more accurate diagnosis of diseases than people can4. Big data sets and predictive analytics can also enable doctors to make faster, more accurate decisions.

At the same time, AI is increasingly being used to better identify potential new drug molecules. This can cut costs, time, research and the failure rates during development. Researchers at MIT recently used an AI tool based on the structure of the brain to identify a powerful new molecule capable of eradicating antibiotic resistant bacteria – advancing our fight against growing drug resistance5.

At every stage of the patient journey, across the globe, there are opportunities to progress healthcare using AI.

Using AI to fight COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen the adoption of AI tools accelerate to support diagnosis, epidemiological trend analysis and vaccine discovery. For example, an AI tool is being used in China to classify the level of pneumonia in COVID-19 patients’ lungs. It’s shortened analysis time from six hours to less than three seconds6.

In Wuhan, China, natural language processing technology is being used to make up to 1.5 million automated phone calls every day. The tool can ask questions and understand responses, to support efforts to track the pandemic7 which has been critical in helping to fight the spread of the virus.

A number of the companies in our sustainable investment portfolio are developing innovative and technological solutions that seek to solve some of the biggest healthcare challenges today. Many of these solutions focus on intellectual property (IP) which allows these companies to build high barriers to entry, pricing power at the same time as cash flow above-market levels.


  • Medtronic – a case study

    Global medical tech firm, Medtronic, has developed a range of IP-protected products. It’s generated impressive profits as well as improvements in patient outcomes. This is across cardiovascular, diabetes, restorative therapies, and minimally-invasive therapy solutions7.

    Medtronic also produces high-performance ventilators. As the urgent global need for life-saving ventilators in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly grew this year, Medtronic quickly boosted its manufacturing capacity by doubling staff numbers and introducing 24/7 production. The company also open-sourced the design specifications for its Puritan Bennett 560 ventilator to enable an increase in global production7. Medtronic’s other innovative solutions include:

    • The world’s smallest pacemaker, the Micra Transcatheter Pacing System, is delivered through a patient’s leg in a minimally invasive approach. It’s 93% smaller than conventional pacemakers and leadless with a 12-year battery life8
    • The first ever hybrid closed loop system, that could change the lives of millions of people living with type one diabetes, is the MiniMed Insulin Pump. Granted FDA breakthrough status in 2019, the device mimics a healthy pancreas by continually observing blood glucose levels. It then automatically sends the required amount of insulin9. Using AI, it can then predict blood sugar peaks and troughs, and use insulin to ensure smoother levels. This data is also sent to the patient’s smartphone to give insights into activities that may affect their individual glucose patterns.

    Premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases have also been reduced using a range of Medtronic technologies. As many as 75 million patients were served by Medtronic last year, while the company trained 83,000 medical professionals and did 279 clinical studies. The company is also increasing awareness of the benefits of device-delivered therapeutic treatments for pain management to replace opioids.

    Medtronic’s haemodialysis system was given the ‘Patents for Humanity’ award by the US Patent and Trademark Office in FY19. This is given to game-changing innovations that address global humanitarian challenges. The system aims to offer a much smaller, cheaper and more portable treatment to chronic kidney disease than traditional systems. It also uses 75% less water.

  • Alphabet – a case study

    AI-driven healthcare is already transforming people’s lives worldwide, and it offers vast possibilities in improving healthcare outcomes for people suffering from wide-ranging of conditions. Alphabet is arguably leading the charge in this industry.

    After acquiring London-based DeepMind, (now Google Health), it’s been researching and building AI neural networks to advance scientific discovery. It is also helping to solve a range of challenges. For example, hospital eye care is limited by the sheer number of eye scans that need reviewing. Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in London has to review 1,000 a day.

    The structure of the NHS, its size and access to large patient data sets means the UK is uniquely positioned to benefit from and build businesses around AI in healthcare. Alphabet partnered with Moorfields to work on new technology that can identify 50 common eye problems. These include diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration. Roughly 100 million people around the world suffer from either of these conditions10.

    By using machine learning, Alphabet developed a system to quickly review the tests. The algorithm is now equal to or exceeds the speed and accuracy of a leading consultant ophthalmologists. This technology is also being used to analyse blood tests, heart rate data points and 700,000 patient records to accurately predict whether someone will develop acute kidney injury up to 48 hours earlier than doctors typically can11. A fifth of hospital admission patients have acute kidney injury. This accounts for 100,000 of UK fatalities every year12.

Our sustainable investment portfolio, enables clients to invest companies that are transforming lives for the better, including Medtronic and Alphabet, as well as maximising risk-adjusted returns.  To find out more, please speak to your relationship manager of contact us.

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