The A.I. Will See You Now


Parmy Olson, Forbes Staff

November 12, 2015

With machines taking more of the work traditionally done by humans, it’s only inevitable they’ll iron out the inefficiencies of health care. But we probably won’t see that first with hospitals or traditional doctors. We’ll see it happen with a small coterie of mobile apps that let you to speak to a doctor at the tap of a button.

Babylon Health is a British mobile app that charges its users £5 (about $8) a month to speak to a general practitioner whenever they want, as many times as they need. The doctors can write prescriptions and refer them to specialists.

Babylon Health employs around 100 doctors full time, paying them the same rate they’d get from working for Britain’s National Health Service. “We don’t want to go into a price war with the state system because the state has a very important role to play,” says Babylon Health’s founder and CEO Ali Parsa, from his startup’s headquarters in Bayswater, London.

For the last two years Babylon Health has built up an active user base of around 250,000 people, of which half use the service through their employer. Some 60 companies including Citigroup have incorporated Babylon Health’s service into their corporate health plans.

Babylon’s big advantage right now is cost.

San Francisco-based Doctor on Demand charges $40 for a 15-minute video consultation with a medical doctor while rival service HealthTap’s remote doctor service Prime charges $99 a month for remote, any-time access to its doctors. American Well charges $49 for a video visit with a doctor; Teladoc charges $40 per video or phone appointment, along with an annual subscription fee.

Babylon can undercut partly because of its unique model. While HealthTap has 60,000 doctors on its roster who are seeing patients outside of their own schedule – a kind of moonlighting system that pays per consult – Babylon has fewer doctors (around 100) who are employed full time. “We use them efficiently,” Parsa says.

Now, artificial intelligence software will also be crucial to keeping costs low in the long term, by getting the patient to do more of their own triage work.

Babylon’s traditional service sees its users request a consultation with a doctor, with whom they go through a series of questions to help the practitioner triage the patient. A new version of the app, due to roll out in a few months, uses a Siri-like interface that uses voice recognition to go through a series of questions, before seeing a doctor.

Parsa demonstrated the back and forth at his plant-filled office, pulling out his iPhone, opening the app and saying, “Hey Babylon, I have a headache.”

Text scrawled across the screen in response, accompanying a disembodied female voice. “Sorry to hear that,” she said. “Where is the pain?”

“All over,” Parsa responded. The app quickly ran through a taxonomy of thousands of questions before deciding what to ask next.

“Ok, and how did the pain start?”

“Gradually,” Parsa said.

“I see. How would you rate your pain from one to 10?”

Parsa gave it a five.

“A few more questions,” the app responded, before asking about whether Parsa has experienced any dizziness, fever, nausea or eyesight problems.

Parsa put the phone aside for a moment. “It’s going through hundreds of millions of variations of symptoms,” he said, citing a large database of medical symptoms that Babylon had built up over the last two years.

The app was speaking again. “The good news is this can be managed at home,” its female voice said. “Stay hydrated. Let the illness run its course. If you find it difficult to look at light, see a GP right away. I’m serious.”

The “I’m serious,” at the end was another example of how A.I., in the form of modern day digital assistants like Siri or Facebook’s M, is increasingly using friendly colloquialisms to avoid sounding cold and robotic. (Tech writer Leigh Alexander has great piece on the trend as it points to a false intimacy of the Internet, here.)

This lightening-fast calculation of symptoms and warm, cooing voice are ultimately important ways to help Babylon Health cut down on costs, and maintain its £5 a month subscription pricing.

“It would have taken a doctor five minutes to ask these questions,” Parsa says. Now she or he might only have to spend one minute asking them. “The cost of answering a question went down from £5 to £1.”

Parsa points to airlines as an example of how software has also streamlined the process of using a service and brought down prices. “You no longer have to go to a travel agent, but just book on your mobile,” he says.

It’s worth noting that the term artificial intelligence is broad in its scope and has been co-opted by other startups searching for buzzy shorthand to describe what is ultimately smart software.

Parsa won’t go too deeply into how the new A.I. component of Babylon works, other than to say it uses a “symptom check engine” that trawls through hundreds of millions of variations of symptoms. The software uses that to recommend a best course of action, whether that’s booking an appointment with one of the app’s doctors, getting a prescription, or rushing to the hospital.

He notes that the two founders of the British artificial intelligence firm Deep Mind are investors and board members of Babylon, and while they had nothing to do with the development of Babylon’s new software, their involvement with the company validates it.

Babylon users can get prescriptions (which they still have to pay for, even if the prescriptions are for kids) and also send off for private tests on things like cholesterol or hormone levels by paying an extra £15 or more. The current version of the app gets mostly average or good reviews on Mumsnet, one of the UK’s most popular online forums for mothers.

Parsa ultimately wants Babylon to become a popular alternative to seeing an NHS doctor face to face. He argues that what the service loses in-person contact, it makes up for with speed and efficiency, since NHS users will often have to wait two weeks or more to get an appointment with their GP.

“We’re doing with healthcare what Google did with information,” he says. “Making it available to everyone with prices people can afford.”

This article was written by Parmy Olson from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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