31 January 2020 – Plagued by budget restraints, rising patient demand, an ageing population and staff shortages, the NHS is facing an unprecedented crisis, as the coldest predicted winter looms. A spate of norovirus and an early outbreak of flu has already placed even more pressure on overburdened services – with many winter months still ahead.
In recent weeks it has been reported that the healthcare system is short of 100,000 staff members, with a shortfall of 7,000 GPs predicted over the next five years. Wait times in both urgent and general practice have also reached record highs, while public satisfaction with services has reached its lowest since records began.
With more than half of GPs already seeing a third more patients than their capacity indicates and NHS staff working more than one million hours of unpaid overtime a week, the question remains: How can the NHS be pulled back from the edge?
From the development of antibiotics and vaccines, to technologies that process scans and detect early stage diseases, innovations have improved patient care since the inception of the NHS over seventy years ago.
Yet whilst innovation has transformed the society we live in, the healthcare sector has traditionally held back from the digital revolution, resisting the transition from an analogue system in the information age. For example, surgery receptions still receive hundreds of calls each morning and hospital ward clerks still shift enormous paperwork stacks to process a simple patient transfer.
Understandably, the idea of technology in this inherently human sector triggers mixed reactions from patients and healthcare professionals alike. However, researchers forecast that the NHS could save a quarter of hospital doctors’ time and £12.5 billion a year if they invested in a comprehensive automation programme, making this an unsustainable rhetoric.
From diagnosing acute conditions and triaging patients, to providing in-depth population health analysis and video consultations, the capacity for algorithms and AI technology to remove frictions and create efficiencies within the current system are substantial.
Making informed calls
Smart technologies with machine learning capacities excel at analysing large quantities of data at a faster pace, with greater accuracy than health practitioners. The result is that significant amounts of work can be done in days, rather than weeks. For instance, AI can scan and assess an x-ray in just 33 milliseconds.
Not only does this allow doctors to make data driven, real time, assessments, the development of big data capture technologies, which are endorsed by rigorous clinical governance, means AI can predict, prevent or treat diseases and help deliver more comprehensive, proactive programmes of care for patients.
Developed algorithms are also well equipped to identify trends and recommend the best route of care for patients, many of whom could safely look after themselves at home. For instance, general practices using the digital service Doctorlink have been able to redirect 20-30 per cent of patients away from primary care to a more appropriate service for their needs such as a pharmacist or physiotherapist.
By re-directing patients away from the GP – or A&E if out of regular hours – and to the most suitable route of care, technology can give back valuable consultation time to doctors, reducing patient waiting times and enabling those most in need to access GP services.
The potential of such advances has not gone un-noticed. In fact between 2012-2017, the number of global start-ups in healthcare AI increased by two-thirds. From preventative solutions such as giving patients an easy way to book vaccinations and appointments, to accelerating drug discovery and delivery times, the capacity for AI technology to reduce administrative demands and increase patient access is vast.
Yet despite growing enthusiasm, the health care industry is lagging behind almost all other sectors when it comes to the integration of technology and adoption of advances in AI and deep machine learning.
No replacement for doctors
While many are excited by the idea that technology can create efficiencies, remove friction in the system and reroute patients to the most appropriate care, others worry about the potential anonymity of digital doctors removing a necessary human touch.
Rather than replacing the incredible doctors, nurses and administrators of the NHS, automation has the potential to be a great enabler, giving clinicians back valuable consultation time for the patients most in need.
With the NHS running 24/7, clinicians want evidence that the technology will be introduced seamlessly without causing further strains, whilst ensuring there’s still a place for human healthcare practitioners in the digital age.
Ultimately, technology can never replace the necessary human touch of doctors, but with the capacity to complement the skills of medical staff, the value of cloud technology, big data and AI to the future of the NHS must not be underestimated.
With the NHS under more strain than ever, the pace of digital innovation in UK health services needs to increase to ensure it can continue to attract the best talent and keep up with patient demand.