If you have picked up a paper or scrolled the headlines on your way to work this morning, chances are you’ve seen a story about the NHS in crisis.
In recent weeks, it has been reported that our healthcare system is short of 100,000 staff – with a further GP shortfall of 7,000 predicted within the next five years. Already, wait times in both urgent care and general practice have reached record highs, while public satisfaction with services have reached a record low.
Plagued by increasing patient demand, budget restraints, staff shortages and an ageing population, the burning question remains: How can we pull the NHS back from the verge?
Putting political debates to one side, algorithms and AI are two oft-debated ideas to prop up our pressured healthcare system.
Understandably, the idea of technology in this inherently human sector elicits mixed reactions from clinicians and patients alike.
While many are excited by the idea that MedTech 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.
No matter what the underlying condition, patients seeking medical advice are often worried, anxious and vulnerable. This is why it’s essential they continue to have the option of care from a compassionate, trained healthcare professional, whether that’s their GP, local pharmacist or urgent care doctor.
The fix isn’t to replace the incredible doctors, nurses and administrators of the NHS – it’s to provide them with a support system that gives them back valuable consultation time for the patients who need it most.
The use of digital technology in certain areas of healthcare, such as triage and diagnosis, should be there to support clinicians in working at the top of their license. Rather than working against general practice, removing patients from the mainstream system in exchange for remote video consultation services, technology should work alongside general practice and urgent care as a digital support.
Whilst such advancements in medical technology are nothing new, the potential reach a doctor now has with the aid of digital innovations is significant.
From remotely assessing symptoms and providing in-depth population health data analysis to scanning and diagnosing radiological images in just seconds, the importance of big data, cloud technologies and AI to reduce industry pressures and open up access to care for patients is considerable.
For example, general practices using the Doctorlink Symptom Assessment app have been able to redirect 20-30 percent of patients away from primary care and to more appropriate services by implementing such digital services, freeing up a substantial period of time that doctors and nurses can use for more crucial consultations and tasks.
Despite hesitations among HCPs and patients alike, with machine assisted learning, the accuracy of the algorithms are continually assessed helping clinicians improve the patient experience without removing their clinical expertise. The machine provides population and algorithmic improvement data, while clinicians evaluate and verify whether it’s safe to make those changes. As such, the human interface and clinical oversight is maintained.
Yet although it can have extraordinary benefits to clinician’s workflow, it cannot exist without them. Rather than a substitute for a highly-skilled human healthcare provider, the technology here is a supporter and enabler.
Machines excel at dealing with huge amounts of data to identify trends, so they’re well equipped to recommend the best route of care for patients, whether pharmacy, GP or A&E, but they will never replace the compassion and care of a real clinician.
By re-routing patients away from the automatic instinct to head to their GP – or often A&E out of regular hours – and to the most appropriate form of care, technology can give back valuable time to doctors for the patients that need it the most. It can also serve a valuable preventive role by giving patients a quick and easy way of booking routine appointments and vaccinations. Reducing administrative workload (and therefore alleviating the risk of burnout) in this way, the real stars of the NHS are given more opportunity to do what they do best – care for patients in need.
It means humans are still at the heart of healthcare – but the key is to give them the digital support and resources they need to help more people.
Alfonso Ferrandez is the Chief Technology Officer at Doctorlink.
Doctorlink is the UK’s leading health and symptom assessment platform, providing 24/7 access to healthcare for over 10 million NHS patients. Currently Doctorlink is the only digital triage solution specifically designed to alleviate the burden on NHS GP practice and has been implemented across 7 STPs, covering more than 1,350 GP Practices and is accessible to 10 million patients.