Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence

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Ro­bots and health­care

An ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence rev­o­lu­tion may soon be un­der­way in the Bri­tish Na­tional Health Ser­vice (NHS). A new re­port pre­dicts that ro­bots could help hospi­tal pa­tients eat their meals, di­ag­nose se­ri­ous ill­nesses and even help peo­ple re­cover from op­er­a­tions. Ma­chines could take over a wide range of tasks cur­rently done by doc­tors, nurses, health­care as­sis­tants and ad­min­is­tra­tive staff, ac­cord­ing to a lead­ing think tank. Wide­spread use of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) and the NHS ac­cept­ing “full au­to­ma­tion” could free up staff time worth as much as £12.5 bil­lion a year — time that they could spend in­ter­act­ing with pa­tients.

“Given the scale of pro­duc­tiv­ity sav­ings re­quired in health and care — and the short­age of front­line staff — au­to­ma­tion presents a sig­nif­i­cant op­por­tu­nity to im­prove both the ef­fi­ciency and the qual­ity of care in the NHS,” says a re­port by the In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy Re­search (IPPR) and Lord Darzi, a sur­geon and ex-health min­is­ter.

More ac­cu­rate di­ag­noses

“Bed­side ro­bots” could help pa­tients con­sume food and drink and move around their ward, and even help with ex­er­cises as part of their re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion from surgery, it says. In ad­di­tion, “some­one ar­riv­ing at hospi­tal may be­gin by un­der­go­ing dig­i­tal triage in an au­to­mated as­sess­ment suite. Ai-based sys­tems, in­clud­ing ma­chine-learn­ing al­go­rithms, would be used to make more ac­cu­rate di­ag­noses of dis­eases such as pneu­mo­nia, breast and skin can­cers, eye dis­eases and heart con­di­tions.”

Dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy could also take over the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of pa­tients’ notes, book­ing of ap­point­ments and pro­cess­ing of pre­scrip­tions.

The re­port sought to re­duce fears that an AIpow­ered NHS could lead to a sig­nif­i­cant loss of jobs among its 1.3 mil­lion work­ers in Eng­land. Ma­chines would work along­side hu­man be­ings, not re­place them, so pa­tients would ben­e­fit, it says. The re­port, part of a ma­jor piece of re­search into how to make the 70-year-old NHS sus­tain­able, states: “Un­like many in­dus­tries, where there are fears that au­to­ma­tion will re­sult in mass un­em­ploy­ment, in health and care au­to­ma­tion will pri­mar­ily com­ple­ment hu­man skills and tal­ents, by re­duc­ing the bur­den of ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks — com­mu­ni­cat­ing med­i­cal notes, book­ing ap­point­ments, pro­cess­ing pre­scrip­tions — whilst free­ing up time for clin­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing and car­ing.”

Hospi­tal bosses are di­vided over how plau­si­ble the IPPR’S vi­sion of a fu­ture Ai-driven NHS is and how many of the tasks cur­rently done by nurses and other staff can be taken over by ro­bots.

“It is re­al­is­tic that sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ments of pa­tient care could be im­proved by ro­bot­ics and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence,” said An­drew Fos­ter, CEO of the Wright­ing­ton, Wi­gan and Leigh NHS trust, who was also the Depart­ment of Health’s di­rec­tor of hu­man re­sources for the NHS from 2001 to 2006. “How­ever, we must never for­get the fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance of hu­man care, com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy and even the im­por­tance of a gen­tle, phys­i­cal, hu­man touch. For [AI] to be wel­come, health ser­vices will have to sen­si­tively blend new tech­nolo­gies with old-fash­ioned care.”

Tracy Bul­lock, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Mid Cheshire Hos­pi­tals trust, voiced sim­i­lar cau­tion. “When a pa­tient is being fed, you are not just feed­ing them, you are as­sess­ing their alert­ness, emo­tional state, abil­ity to en­gage, skin con­di­tion, res­pi­ra­tory rate and so on. I’m not sure AI can do that, as the al­go­rithms to en­able it would be too com­plex,” Bul­lock said.

“Would there be re­dun­dan­cies?” she asked. “I would hope not, as we are woe­fully short of staff. But if the sav­ings do not come from staff, where are they com­ing from? I’m sure there will be some from quicker treat­ments and other ef­fi­cien­cies. But £12 bil­lion?”

Fos­ter, how­ever, doubted the NHS could af­ford to re­duce its work­force as a re­sult of the adop­tion of AI. “We cur­rently have at least 100,000 va­can­cies in the NHS with de­mand ris­ing all the time. I think that re­dun­dant NHS staff is a long way from being a sig­nif­i­cant con­cern,” he said.

Out-of-date equip­ment

Mean­while, new fig­ures show that, as a re­sult of the NHS’S cash cri­sis, hos­pi­tals are us­ing out-of­date scan­ners that should have been re­placed up to 17 years ago. In­for­ma­tion re­leased by hos­pi­tals in Eng­land un­der free­dom-of-in­for­ma­tion laws shows wide­spread con­tin­ued use of very old X-ray ma­chines as well as CT, MRI and ul­tra­sound scan­ners.

Re­cent re­search showed that the UK has only 9.5 CT scan­ners per one mil­lion of pop­u­la­tion, com­pared with the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD) av­er­age of 26. Sim­i­larly, the NHS has only 7.2 MRI scan­ners per mil­lion peo­ple, whereas the OECD av­er­age is 16.

Ma­chines would work along­side hu­man be­ings, not re­place them

Dr Who? Ro­bots could make medicine more ef­fi­cient

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