The debate on the ethics of AI in health care: a reconstruction and critical review


Healthcare systems across the globe are struggling with increasing costs and worsening outcomes. This presents those responsible for overseeing healthcare with a challenge. Increasingly, policymakers, politicians, clinical entrepreneurs and computer and data scientists argue that a key part of the solution will be ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) – particularly Machine Learning (ML). This argument stems not from the belief that all healthcare needs will soon be taken care of by “robot doctors.” Instead, it is an argument that rests on the classic counterfactual definition of AI as an umbrella term for a range of techniques that can be used to make machines complete tasks in a way that would be considered intelligent were they to be completed by a human. Automation of this nature could offer great opportunities for the improvement of healthcare services and ultimately patients’ health by significantly improving human clinical capabilities in diagnosis, drug discovery, epidemiology, personalised medicine, and operational efficiency. However, if these AI solutions are to be embedded in clinical practice, then at least three issues need to be considered: the technical possibilities and limitations; the ethical, regulatory and legal framework; and the governance framework. In this article, we report on the results of a systematic analysis designed to provide a clear overview of the second of these elements: the ethical, regulatory and legal framework. We find that ethical issues arise at six levels of abstraction (individual, interpersonal, group, institutional, sectoral, and societal) and can be categorised as epistemic, normative, or overarching. We conclude by stressing how important it is that the ethical challenges raised by implementing AI in healthcare settings are tackled proactively rather than reactively and map the key considerations for policymakers to each of the ethical concerns highlighted.

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