Leaked report reveals plans to replace NHS 111 operators with robots within two years

NHS England report calls on widespread use of AI technology to ease pressure on non-emergency health services

Robots could take over the work of human call operators on the NHS 111 non-emergency helpline within two years, according to a leaked report.

More than half of UK consumers, many of whom will be NHS users, say they would be more open to AI if it helped them in their everyday lives

NHS England says it is likely that smartphones will become the ‘primary method of accessing health services’ moving forward.

And, by 2020 it predicts that nearly 16 million queries may be processed by algorithms rather than phone operators.

Yet it adds that human staff will not done away with entirely as the system will transfer callers to appropriate people once the gist of the complaint has been established.

If the plans go ahead, the digital service would be rolled out as early as the end of this year, with up to 16 million calls dealt with this way, according to the report, which is dated last month and reported in the Daily Mail.

It is hoped the move would ease the workload of overstretched NHS staff after one in five non-emergency callers gave up on the 111 service over the New Year period as a record numbers of calls was received.

when people can see how AI can streamline and personalise services including health advice, they may be more willing to use it

A similar system is in use in Australia and it is claimed it could effectively process 33% of all calls.

Patients would be given automated advice, offered a call back from an operator, or would be connected directly to a GP.

But the news has sparked widespread concern, particularly as some people, particularly the vulnerable elderly population, do not always have access to the internet.

Responding to the report, Mark Barrenechea, chief executive at enterprise information management firm, OpenText, said AI was being heralded as a technology that would help to achieve breakthroughs in the health and care sector, including the recently-published potential to detect cancer.

And he insisted patients were supportive of the switch from human operators to their robotic counterparts.

Recent OpenText research revealed:

  • A quicker diagnosis was identified as the biggest benefit, with one in three (33%) UK consumers believing robots would reach a decision on their condition much faster
  • As well as faster diagnosis, one in four (25%) British consumers believe they would get a more-accurate diagnosis from AI
  • A quarter of UK consumers (25%) said robot technology would mean they wouldn’t have to rely on booking an appointment with a GP
  • 24% said the biggest benefit would be no longer having to take time off work to visit a doctor

Ultimately, organisations need to build trust in their use of AI to enhance customer service. This means being transparent about how the technology is developed and delivered

Barrenechea told BBH: “Thanks to parallel processing, big data, cloud technology, and advanced algorithmsl Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are becoming more powerful.

“The digital revolution will drive an increasing reliance on self-service technology, machine to machine (M2M) communication and AI, and there is no denying that every job in every industry will be impacted.

“The opportunity for innovation and change is limitless.”

In a recent report, PwC revealed that over a quarter of Brits would now trust robots over doctors with heart surgery.

And this belief in AI is mirrored across the healthcare sector at a much-wider level with the OpenText research revealing that nearly two in five – 38% – of UK consumers would trust the medical diagnosis given by AI and just over one in 10 (11%) would trust the diagnosis of AI more, or just as much, as a doctor’s diagnosis.

But Don Schuerman, chief technology officer and AI evangelist at software supplier, Pegasystems, warned that building trust with patients would be vital if the move was to go ahead. He said: “Bots handing out medical advice may sound odd, but when we surveyed Brits about when they would be most comfortable using AI to get better service, bots helping doctors deliver better diagnoses ranked second highest below retailers.

“Yes, there may be some irritation about interacting with AI that’s clumsy and impersonal. However, when people can see how AI can streamline and personalise services including health advice, they may be more willing to use it.

“More than half of UK consumers, many of whom will be NHS users, say they would be more open to AI if it helped them in their everyday lives.

“Ultimately, organisations need to build trust in their use of AI to enhance customer service. This means being transparent about how the technology is developed and delivered.

the best way for the NHS to reap the benefits of AI isn’t just to think about robots taking humans’ places, but how humans and AI-powered robots together can deliver the best-possible experience for citizens

“It’s also vital that we look at how AI is actually about augmented intelligence systems that help their human co-workers to engage with customers more positively – AI is assisting them by eliminating mundane tasks and giving them the insights that can ensure they offer the next-best action, whether the caller has a medical or any other concern.

“Rather than just replacing humans, AI is better understood as a way of assisting humans through insights. Therefore, the best way for the NHS to reap the benefits of AI isn’t just to think about robots taking humans’ places, but how humans and AI-powered robots together can deliver the best-possible experience for citizens.”

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