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Health industry AI efforts get a boost from the COVID-19 pandemic

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) has generally grown at a slower pace in the health industry than in other industries over the last several years. That appears to be changing due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than half of health industry executives — 56% overall — responding to PwC’s AI Predictions 2021 survey said that the pandemic has accelerated their organization’s AI approach, compared with 52% of non-health executives.

Bar chart titled
Health leaders who say pandemic accelerated AI efforts
Pharmaceuticals and life sciences
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Health services
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All industries
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Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on your company’s AI approach? Yes, it has accelerated it. Source: PwC AI Predictions 2021. Bases: Pharmaceuticals and Life sciences, 88; Health services, 88; all industries: 1,032

Most health industry executives, including 88% of those working in pharmaceutical and life sciences (PLS) and 78% in health services believe AI will be seen as a mainstream technology in their companies this year, according to the survey. Nearly all of them (93%) believe AI will create more opportunities than challenges, a sentiment also shared by executives working in other industries.

The health industry’s goals for AI this year, however, are expected to vary across industry subsectors. Health services executives, who represent healthcare providers and health plans, most frequently said their primary goal for AI in 2021 is increasing efficiency and productivity (17%). The majority said they are most likely to use AI to address business challenges in the information technology function. PLS executives most frequently said they will use AI primarily to grow revenue (17%) and create innovative products and services (16%). 

Yet, health industry executives expect new risks and challenges to emerge as they implement AI. They expect an increase in new cyber and privacy threats in the next five years — more so than executives from other industries, and they are concerned about AI disrupting the sectors in which they operate. Health services executives are also worried about customer distrust of AI leading to lost business. Nearly 90% of health industry executives say they are taking sufficient measures this year to address AI risks, slightly higher than in other industries.

The top AI challenge cited by health services leaders (20%) is developing AI models and data sets that can be used across the organization, while PLS executives expect their biggest challenges to be measuring AI’s return on investment (13%) and making the business case for its use (12%).

Governance will be key in balancing AI risks and democratization of AI with return on investment. PLS leaders were twice as likely as health services leaders to say their company would improve AI governance this year (50% compared with 25%). Health services leaders were more likely than those in other industries to say they will enlist outside help to implement and govern AI.

Their approaches to democratizing AI systems also differed. Almost all PLS executives (94%) had already or will take steps to give business users access to centrally governed data sets and models in 2021, compared with 84% of health services executives and 86% of executives across all industries.

This could be because the majority of PLS executives (65%) said their companies had already developed a workforce plan identifying the new skills and roles needed as a result of AI, and were more likely to have implemented upskilling and continual learning initiatives that include AI (51%) than health services executives (41%) and executives across industries (46%).

Despite these workforce investments, PLS executives worry at a higher rate (36%) than health services (25%) and other industry executives (30%) about being able to meet demand for AI skills in their workforce over the next five years.

Takeaways

A health industry that found itself fighting in the dark during the opening waves of the COVID-19 pandemic needs better sightlines to help plan scenarios and prepare for shifts in the insurance market, the economy, utilization, consumer behavior and future waves of infectious disease. AI can play a significant role in creating these sightlines.

For example, during the pandemic digital twin and AI-based simulation models were used by the industry to project the spread of the virus and run multiple scenarios of spread and recovery.

A recent PwC Health Research Institute (HRI) report found that AI investments in 2021 will be important for building digital relationships that ease physician burdens. For example, one health plan is making the claims process easier and faster for providers by using bots to assist employees in handling medical claims.

Cloud-based technologies that pull in patient data from several devices and sources, and use machine learning, can arm clinicians with suggestions and recommendations for patient care. Half (51%) of health industry leaders said that they leverage cloud-based platforms to train and run AI models; 30% plan to in this year.

For PLS companies with consumer or established product portfolios, advanced analytics using AI can save money and increase sales by maximizing the reach and effectiveness of sales forces, or by customizing and automating content and outreach to individual customers searching online for healthcare products, according to HRI.

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Carlos Moreira

Principal, US Pharmaceuticals and Life Sciences, Philadelphia, PwC US

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Anand Rao

Global AI Lead; US Innovation Lead, Emerging Technology Group, Boston, PwC US

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