How I’m using new tech to tackle maternal health

Dr Hannah Allen, Co-Founder of Tinto and GP, shares how we can make the most of artificial intelligence in maternal healthcare.

Why does healthcare, and women’s healthcare in particular, need technology and artificial intelligence?

My drive to revolutionise the landscape of women’s health comes from my own frontline experience. Over my nine years as a GP, I have seen countless women come through my door asking about decisively subclinical challenges.

At the time, I didn’t have children and I didn’t feel like I was giving them a really impactful and satisfying experience from a clinical perspective… or really any perspective! It turns out I wasn’t alone. Since then, I’ve surveyed a number of surgeries locally and have found that around 85% of primary care doctors do not feel confident managing common postnatal health issues, including pelvic floor and breastfeeding concerns. I knew that we could do more to support these women better and, in turn, better set up these families for a fulfilling and enjoyable parenting experience.

As I investigated further, it became very apparent that although digital healthcare was taking off in many ways, men’s health and wellbeing was being actively prioritised above women’s by investors across the world. We were sitting in an abyss of generic misinformation for our female patients globally, and a lack of support for our doctors too. We need connected, preventative, community-based and subclinical support for women. And we need it now.

How did the possible application of artificial intelligence in healthcare first pique your interest?

While I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the women’s health landscape, I was starting to notice some amazing technologies making an appearance, such as precision medicine and digital therapeutics.

Digital therapeutics deliver technology-driven alternatives to mainstream interventions and prescriptions, which has of course become even more crucial in the last year or so. Alongside this development, precision medicine is moving us away from a one-size-fits-all approach and uses someone’s genes, environment and lifestyle to select an intervention that’s personalised to them. This isn’t an entirely new concept. We’ve always used precision medicine in blood transfusions for example, where we need to make sure we use the right blood type, but the use up to this point has been relatively limited. Now however, the emergence of novel technologies such as CRISPR and the impact this can have in the field of genomics is huge.

I then saw Babylon Health pioneering some incredible technology specifically aimed at improving primary care. At the time, they had just raised their series A and were doing some really interesting work in both the UK and further afield in Rwanda. With a population of 12 million people but just 800 doctors, Babylon’s work in Rwanda perfectly demonstrated just how scalable technology can really quickly advance the quality and accessibility of healthcare to those who really need it.

I joined the Babylon scientists and the engineers to provide a frontline clinical viewpoint, which is so important in the development of these technologies. After being at Babylon for several years and having my two children, I moved on to build Tinto, the app that provides personal and accessible subclinical support for women during the perinatal stage so that they can thrive in motherhood.

Tinto, the app for mum advice you can trust

So what actually is artificial intelligence and how can it be applied to healthcare?

Artificial intelligence (AI) has got a bit of a bad rap over recent years. The concept was originally talked about in the 1970s, but we’ve only recently started to see any real benefits or values from it.

In its simplest form, AI is about getting machines to think in a human way. There’s things that we innately do as humans that we don’t have to second guess or think about. We just do them naturally.

And this is never more true than in medicine. As a doctor, when a patient comes into the room, they might give me a lot of information, some of which is relevant to the final diagnosis and some that is not. I can easily distinguish between the two, but a machine cannot unless we train it to do so. On top of that, I can infer that a patient with slowed speech and poor eye contact may be suffering with depression, but these subtle visual, tactile and language cues are really difficult for a machine to process.

We’ve seen a gradual evolution of AI in various different social media algorithms already. Think about the way that Netflix just knows what you’d like to watch next, for example. This all uses elements of AI. We’ve seen it in other sectors, and we’re just about starting to see it in healthcare too. AI and technology can be applied to most aspects of healthcare including diagnostics, personalised management and even drug delivery.

It’s really important to have a balanced conversation about artificial intelligence. It’s not helpful just to say that AI is the answer. It’s absolutely not. There’s always a place for humans in this. But it’s about how we harness technology to bring the most out of the human experience.

How do you think digital healthcare and AI can benefit maternal and paediatric health in particular?

In the UK, reportedly 50% of new mums don’t attend their postnatal checkup, despite it being their only opportunity to discuss their health and wellbeing in detail. Our healthcare system just doesn’t work for women, and it’s time we address this problem head on.

I think it’s helpful to step back and look at this from a parent’s perspective. I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old, and if I think about when I’ve needed access to healthcare and support for either my children or myself, it’s always at the really inconvenient times. When we’re on holiday far away from our normal GP practice. The middle of the night when we can’t access a paediatrician without going to the emergency department. It’s the inaccessibility and expense of the doctors that’s the problem.

If we can use technology to bridge the gap and provide that round-the-clock help for parents and children, it will be of huge benefit. We need to provide the services parents and children need in a convenient and accessible way that’s compliant with data laws and deployed in an ethical way.

But we can’t just get the convenience part right and ignore the quality. We need technology that can think like a doctor so that whenever you need it, high quality support is there. And that’s where Tinto comes into it.

I spend a lot of time talking to midwives and doctors that are so over-stretched and over-burdened and they’re only really able to see the severe patients rather than the moderate-to-low severity patients who may not have much support at all. Tinto provides a platform where women can access high quality, one-to-one and personalised advice. Mums can chat to other women who have walked in their shoes or allied health professionals who specialise in everything from sleep and feeding to mental and pelvic health. You’re able to bring your challenge day or night, and we’ll source the right support for you.

This discussion was adapted from the King’s John Price Respiratory Conference where Dr Hannah Allen took part in a fireside discussion around AI and child health.