The life science industry must build trust in AI – here’s how

We recently brought together three expert voices in health tech, biotech and pharma to discuss the biggest trends shaping these industries: Rory Cellan-Jones, former technology reporter at the BBC, and now a health and technology commentator, Nicole Raleigh, Web Editor for pharmaphorum and Dr Uzma Choudry a TechBio/Biotech VC and Scientist.

Unsurprisingly, the impact of AI on healthcare and pharma was a key topic of discussion. We covered everything from AI progress to challenges around trust and cultural barriers, and how storytelling must evolve to help overcome them.

We are already seeing incredible examples of AI in healthcare – from designing proteins through to analysing radiology reports. With our own clients, we just helped launch the AI-first company helping to improve cell therapy. And as Uzma explained, “AI and machine learning will help shorten drug development timelines, reduce high failure rates in clinical trials, and advance precision medicine and cell & gene therapies.”

Where is the tangible progress?

The panel highlighted that the potential for AI is widely discussed, from literature reviews and data analytics through to drug discovery – but they all agreed tangible progress is slow.

“There’s a lot of talk about AI innovation…but not a lot of action”, said Rory. “I think the real promise of AI in health is probably not in flashy things like robotic surgeons, but areas like predicting and managing patient flows. For example, there are quite fruitful experiments going on with using AI to deploy resources more carefully.”

Breaking down the barriers to acceptance and adoption

The panel agreed that the benefits of AI are being realised more slowly partly due to barriers like cultural resistance, so we need to encourage behaviour change.

As Nicole explained: “We have an aging population, and older people don’t necessarily want to turn to new technology like AI.” Uzma Choudry echoed this sentiment, noting that “last year there were 800 million people over the age of 65, and that comes with a greater amount of healthcare challenges and diseases – and it is only set to increase”.

Ultimately, this means we need to change mindsets. “Communicating how AI is being used in patient-facing roles – not just in drug discovery – which people can actually relate to can help to break down some of this resistance”, explained Nicole. “Whether that’s predicting peak times at hospitals to better manage bed capacity, or analysing patient data quickly to help monitor and predict disease control and prevention.”

Both journalists on the panel agreed that showcasing the real, tangible examples of how AI is benefiting people’s health is one of the most effective ways to demystify it and build more trust.

As Rory remarked: “The problem now is that it still feels like we are five years away from making this huge impact everyone is waiting for with AI in healthcare. But it always comes down to being about people, doesn’t it? So, it’s really important we do talk about the initial wins and human impact no matter how small – such as using AI to reduce patient waiting times at a particular hospital.”

Nicole agreed and highlighted that stories for pharmaphorum have to focus on “AI’s impact and delivery, and if something is showing potential, tangible benefits for a patient in an area of unmet need.”

The importance of transparency and ethics

Another way that we can build trust in AI in healthcare is by approaching discussions around the technology with transparency. In fact, almost four in five (79%) of CIOs in pharma and biotech organisations believe that companies creating AI tools need to be transparent about how they are being developed[1].

This includes being vocal on positive use cases, while being clear about where research is ready to be applied to the real world yet. In almost every case, human expertise is still more effective, so we must highlight that the use of AI will always be a combination of both people and technology.

The panellists also agreed that brands need to be prepared to have a stance on the ethics and worries around the technology – such as jobs, bias, and the security of patient data.

Leverage your people – as experts and for human storytelling

Finally, the panel urged brands to profile AI experts to demonstrate credibility and build further trust. The pharma industry is increasingly working with AI experts, whether in their internal teams or through collaboration with the biotech sector – so leverage them for storytelling.

By raising their profile through media interviews or speaking at events, these experts can signal a commitment to embracing AI, and spark interesting discussion within the industry.

Experts with ‘hands-on’ experience of AI can bring real-world examples and a human face to the technology – which can put nervousness at ease.

Continue the momentum

As James Field, CEO of London-based LabGenuis put it so well: “AI is set to be the defining technology of our generation. [But] candidly, the ‘AI risk’ that keeps me up at night is that we’ll be too slow to harness this technology for the benefit of those that we hold closest.”

If AI is set to define the next era of healthcare, communicating about it effectively will play a critical role in building trust, encouraging adoption and ensuring we reap its benefits.

[1] 212 CIOs in biotech, Global Web Index, May 2024