Can an AI bot improve people’s health and wellbeing?

30 Jan 2024

Image: Marco Alfano

Dr Marco Alfano’s research aims to develop trust in AI-driven solutions among patients and healthcare providers.

Dr Marco Alfano is a senior researcher at the Innovation Value Institute in Maynooth University, where he leads the Digital Health and Wellbeing research cluster. He is also affiliated with Lero, the SFI Research Centre for Software.

Alfano completed a PhD in electronic engineering, computer science and telecommunications at the University of Palermo and he has more than 30 years of experience working across academia, industry and government.

His primary research is concerned with the ethical use of AI to develop efficient digital health tools for professionals and patients.

“I strongly believe that every individual should take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing,” Alfano said. “In doing so, they not only enhance their personal lives but also make a meaningful contribution to the collective health of society.”

Tell us about your current research.

My work deals with harnessing the potential of digital technologies to empower individuals in actively managing their health and overall wellbeing. This involves helping them gain a deep understanding of their health status, enabling them to make informed decisions in collaboration with healthcare professionals, and ultimately driving positive changes to enrich their quality of life.

‘The utilisation of digital technologies to empower individuals in managing their health is both crucial and timely’

To facilitate this mission, I’ve led the development of an intelligent health assistant, working closely with an international team of medical experts and skilled software engineers. This advanced tool leverages artificial intelligence to deliver users pertinent, reliable and easily digestible information related to symptoms and diseases.

My goal is to broaden the capabilities of this assistant by incorporating aspects related to mental, social and emotional wellbeing. This enhancement will offer a holistic perspective on an individual’s health and overall wellbeing. Additionally, I plan to establish seamless connections between the assistant and the digital health ecosystem, facilitating effective communication and interaction with relevant healthcare professionals, applications and data sources.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The utilisation of digital technologies to empower individuals in managing their health is both crucial and timely. It enables people to assume greater control and responsibility for their health-related decisions and actions.

Through the empowerment of individuals and the provision of access to personalised health information, resources and tools, this research – among other benefits – aims to foster greater independence, promote healthier behaviours, alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and enhance mental health and emotional wellbeing – ultimately resulting in an improved quality of life.

Furthermore, these advancements can contribute to a more sustainable healthcare system by reducing the burden on budgets and resources dedicated to healthcare.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

The motivation for this research originated during my tenure as a researcher at the University of Palermo in Italy, approximately a decade ago. I was actively engaged in a project focused on the development of electronic health records (EHRs) for consolidating all of a patient’s medical information into a digital repository.

Initially, I perceived this as a valuable resource primarily for hospitals and healthcare providers due to the complex terminology commonly found within EHR documents. However, I was inspired to take a different path – to empower patients to access and comprehend the wealth of health information contained within these EHRs.

My vision was to create an application capable of translating complex medical and technical jargon into easily understandable language. This translation would be accompanied by concise explanations, simplifying the comprehension of these texts.

Since that pivotal moment, my commitment to promoting individual empowerment in matters of health and wellbeing has remained unwavering.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the challenges inherent to my research involves safeguarding the privacy and security of individuals’ health data, given its sensitive nature. Furthermore, responsible AI research necessitates meticulous consideration of ethical concerns, encompassing transparency, fairness and accountability. These principles are not only applied to the AI system itself but also extended to ensuring that the information provided by the system empowers individuals to make truly informed decisions.

Crucially, it is imperative to secure the acceptance and trust of AI-driven solutions among both patients and healthcare providers. It’s important to eliminate the misconception that AI serves as a substitute for healthcare professionals. In reality, my system aids patients in gaining a deeper comprehension of their health and enhances their interactions with healthcare professionals, facilitating collaborative decision-making for optimal human-led care.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years? How do you encourage engagement with your work?

Public engagement with science has undergone recent transformations, notably accelerated by events like the Covid-19 pandemic. The significance of scientific research and expertise in addressing global challenges has sparked increased interest from the public.

In this digital age, science communication has been reshaped, with social media, online platforms and webinars emerging as pivotal tools for scientists and organisations to connect with broader audiences. This shift has rendered science communication more accessible and interactive.

Furthermore, there is a blooming participation in citizen science initiatives, wherein the public actively contributes to scientific research. This participation creates a sense of ownership and deep engagement in scientific pursuits.

In my own research, I have completely embraced public engagement. It is essential for me to directly understand how people can avail of digital technologies to gain a better grasp of their health and wellbeing and make informed decisions. Consequently, I’ve orchestrated various engagement activities, including conducting focus groups with members of Age Friendly Ireland, Kildare Older Person’s Council and Naas Men’s Shed, engaging in interviews with healthcare professionals and organising interactive events for the general public centred around health and technology. I am in the process of organising new patient and public involvement (PPI) sessions to have people shape and actively contribute to the next steps of my research.

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