AI will amplify health workers, not replace them

Rocket target The recent announcement of a £20b funding boost for the NHS by 2023 offers the prospect of much-needed relief for a system under severe stress. What this additional funding will actually achieve in the long run is an open question. However, it would be prudent to focus on how this funding can be used to tackle the NHS’ more monotonous tasks, rather than developing ambitious moonshots.

To be clear, while the spending boost is encouraging, it is by no means a cure-all. In fact, the additional funding falls short (at 3.4% increase per annum) of the long range historic rate of increase in spend (4.1% since 1955) and of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s assessment that 4.3% annual increases would be required through 2023.

Beyond the size of the increase, attention must immediately turn to how it will be expended. Emphasis has been placed on the concept that “every penny must be well spent,” as Prime Minister Theresa May said this week, and that the new 10-year plan will focus on driving efficiency, in particular by investigating opportunities in workforce, technology and productivity improvements. However, as Hal Wolf, the HIMSS CEO, often reminds us, “New Technology + Old Organisation = Costly Old Organisation,” a truism the NHS has experienced time and again.

The routine may be boring, but in healthcare it is critical to quality and efficiency.

Innovation in technology and the workforce must therefore be considered together as an opportunity to fundamentally change care models and transform healthcare through a fresh new perspective on human capital (as illustrated in 2012 in a Global Health Policy Summit report).

When considering new technology, it is often tempting to invest in the “shiny new toys” that promise to generate headline-grabbing outcomes, such as better cancer diagnosis or replacing human doctors with digital ones. Whilst these outcomes may be possible down the line, people involved with healthcare know that the key to achieving quality and affordability is dependent on consistently and efficiently executing routine interactions, the ones that impact the majority of patients every day.

Let’s focus on the hidden part of the healthcare productivity iceberg: the administrative and operational micro-interactions, which on average can take up to 50% of a nurse’s day and up to 20-30% of clinicians’. There is also the burden for patients dealing with gaps in care access and engagement, which often leads to lower quality care and low adherence to prescribed care plans — leading to harm for the patient and additional costs for the system. This is an area where Artificial Intelligence (AI) may prove particularly impactful.

Cutting-edge cognitive AI agents, such as IPsoft’s digital colleague Amelia, are far more advanced than mere chatbots, with unique abilities in semantic understanding, empathy, episodic memory, dynamic process execution and analytic reasoning. The best use for a large scale application by the NHS, particularly in the near term, will be in the cognitive augmentation of routine roles and tasks. This intelligent automation can free humans from the burden of routine interactions such as confirming one’s healthcare entitlements, rescheduling appointments, locating a patient or equipment, or asking simple questions about a service or care plan.

This is why we at IPsoft have focused Amelia’s training on roles where she cognitively augments routine healthcare interactions — either as a “whisper agent” guiding informal caregivers through complex processes, or as a “care companion” enhancing patient access to information and services. Overall, these roles elevate the patient and provider experience, while simultaneously cutting extraneous cost and wasted time.

The routine may be boring, but in healthcare, it is critical to quality and efficiency. Even with a much-needed funding boost for the NHS, let’s stay grounded and start with what is readily achievable, and leave the moonshots and other projects for another time.