Robots and AI to give doctors more time with patients, report says

Robots, artificial intelligence and smart speakers will unburden doctors to give them more time with patients, according to an NHS report on the pending technological “revolution” in healthcare.

Rapid advances will also be spurred on by developments in the ability to sequence individuals’ genomes, the entirety of their genetic data, according to the “groundbreaking” review published on Monday.

The report led by US academic Eric Topol called for fresh education of staff, with 90% of all NHS jobs predicted to require digital skills within 20 years.

But those who fear robots may edge out human practitioners may be reassured by the review suggesting technology will in fact “enhance” professionals, giving them greater time for patients.

Smart speakers, such as Siri and Alexa, were envisioned as having a “major impact” on care.

Though uptake of the fledgling technology has been slow so far with fears of errors, advances make it a “valuable tool” for updating patients’ records, allowing doctors to focus on patients and not paperwork.

Evidence suggests the technology could save 5.7 million hours of GPs’ time across England annually, the report says.

Smart speakers can also be used with a “mental health triage bot” that engages in conversations while analysing text and voice for expressing suicidal ideas and emotion.

Virtual reality could be used in reducing pain and distress for wounded patients, and treat anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Artificial intelligence (AI) could save time in interpreting scans such as mammograms, eye scans and pathology slides, and also improve the accuracy of diagnoses.

The assistance of robots in surgery could be expanded, while they could also automate repetitive tasks such as dispensing pharmaceuticals.

Using phones or Skype for diagnoses and treatment has the potential for significant saving, the report says.

The NHS genomic medicine service has the ambition to sequence – or read and record – up to five million genomes over the next five years.

This, the report says, will extend the benefits beyond cancers and rare diseases to all patients, particularly in the prevention and management of late-onset conditions, such as dementia.

Gene editing techniques also hold the potential to cure once untreatable rare diseases and deliver targeted therapy.

Our health service is on the cusp of a technology revolution

But a key hurdle for the NHS to overcome is training all staff to be digitally literate and competent discussing the field of genomics, the review says.

The authors conclude: “Our review of the evidence leads us to suggest that these technologies will not replace healthcare professionals, but will enhance them… giving them more time to care for patients.”

It also comes with warnings. The new wealth of data to be gathered could be considered intrusive, particularly when it comes to genomic information, the paper warns.

AI’s ability to mimic human behaviours could be seen as “manipulative or deceptive” so patients must always be made aware if they are communicating with man or machine, it says.

And, while innovation has the ability to redress inequalities, there is also the potential to “exacerbate” them, with evidence that digital health records have lower uptake among the poor and ethnic minorities.

The report recommends “robust, resilient reliable and effective” systems that considers consent of data sharing be put in place to prevent “serious risks” of harm to patients.

Dr Topol said the “revolution” has the potential to “greatly strengthen patient-doctor relationships” and “reduce the burnout we can see in a significant proportion of clinicians today”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Our health service is on the cusp of a technology revolution and our brilliant staff will be in the driving seat when it happens.

“Technology must be there to enhance and support clinicians. It has the potential to make working lives easier for dedicated NHS staff and free them up to use their medical expertise and do what they do best: care for patients.”

- Press Association

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