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Politics

Japan plans 10 'AI hospitals' to ease doctor shortages

Computers will fill in patient records and analyze blood tests

Artificial intelligence could take on some hospital tasks and free doctors to focus on surgery and other important work.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is teaming up with businesses and academia to set up hospitals enhanced by artificial intelligence, seeking to allow short-handed doctors to spend more time on patient care while curbing medical spending.

The government is expected to invest more than $100 million in the effort over half a decade, with a target of establishing 10 model hospitals by the end of fiscal 2022. AI will help with tasks from updating patients' charts to analyzing tests and parsing images to help with diagnoses.

The effort aims to address structural challenges to health care, including the chronic lack of doctors and nurses in some areas and rising medical expenses. The initiative will also help make Japan more competitive on the world stage, giving AI development a shot in the arm and helping boost exports of medical equipment.

Three ministries central to the effort -- the education, industry and health ministries -- will recruit participating companies and hospitals this month, targeting AI specialists and medical equipment makers. A basic working framework will be established as early as September, with initial efforts set to focus on cancer patients.

Participants will develop AI-assisted programs that will automatically enter information into patients' medical records based on their conversations with doctors during examinations. That is expected to free doctors to focus on patients and give more time for discussing their conditions.

AI will also be used to parse magnetic resonance imaging and endoscopic imaging, as well as analyze blood tests and other information. It will even study patients' DNA to help pick the most appropriate methods of treatment.

This computerized assistance is geared to ease some burdens for doctors and nurses and help address the labor shortfall. It is also expected to prevent doctors from failing to diagnose cancer. Yet, AI will remain in a supporting role, leaving final diagnoses up to doctors.

To improve AI's accuracy, participants will develop equipment for gathering data from blood pressure meters, electrocardiographs and other devices. The accumulation of data on Japanese patients will help refine AI's diagnostic capability.

Optimizing treatment with the help of AI is expected to cut down on unnecessary treatment, with the government counting on savings to the tune of hundreds of billions of yen per year.

While Japan had an all-time high of about 319,000 doctors as of the end of 2016, up 2.7% year on year, they tended to be highly concentrated in certain areas.

The international race to develop AI-equipped medical equipment is heating up. Competitors like General Electric of the U.S. and Siemens of Germany are strong in the diagnostic device field.

Japan's domestic market for medical devices is estimated at about 2.8 trillion yen. But imports surpass exports by 800 billion yen as doctors rely on foreign-made treatment equipment.

Domestic makers are trying to catch up. Hitachi is researching programs for having AI analyze images from computerized tomography, or CT scanning. Canon Medical Systems uses AI to refine CT imaging, reducing the doses of radiation needed.

Japan's market related to AI-enhanced treatment is set to reach 15 billion yen by 2025, about four times the 2016 tally, according to research firm Fuji Keizai.

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