Embracing the future: How AI can transform healthcare operations

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is currently spreading through all areas of society, with daily headlines showcasing how AI can revolutionise nearly every human activity. AI has now made its way to healthcare sector, both through analytics and clinical treatment, as demonstrated by the recent news that Alexa users are now able to seek medical advice through their device with information retrieved from NHS direct.


Though this was not a universally popular step, the potential for other applications of AI in healthcare is clear, particularly when it comes to administrative tasks. Currently, one of the most significant administrative challenges facing the NHS is unattended appointments, costing the health service over £216m each year. Clinical staff are also spending time on appointment admin when they should be treating patients, wasting even more valuable resources.  However, through the use of intelligent automation and the creation of personalised patient conversations, AI can help to save the NHS, and indeed all healthcare providers, millions of pounds each year and deliver better quality care to their patients.


Money down the drain


According to NHS figures, more than 15 million GP appointments are wasted every year because patients neither turn up nor warn surgeries they won’t be attending. Just over 7 million of these appointments are with family doctors, meaning that more than 1.2 million GP hours are wasted each year.  The resulting £216m, together with disruption for both patients and staff, is an enormous cost to the health service – but there is a solution to tackle it.


Most people want to manage their health using the same technology they use to direct a huge proportion of their day to day lives. Instant and mobile messaging is a convenient and effective way of engaging with patients, and our research shows that they prefer digital interactions to human conversations. In fact, 76% of NHS users say they’d be happy to receive an appointment reminder from a virtual assistant, compared with only 58% who’d be happy to receive one from a human.


Sophisticated chatbots and virtual assistants can be deployed by NHS trusts to automate these interactions, both managing the appointment booking process, and more importantly, increasing patient engagement by sending automated reminders through a chat system to boost the chances that appointments will be attended. Micro-commitments, obtained through conversations with patients by AI, decrease the likelihood a patient will miss their appointment.


Making the most of a bad situation


The efficacy of virtual assistants doesn’t stop at pre-appointment admin either; it can also help to save money in the event an appointment is missed, too. Using geolocation, virtual assistants can identify patients in the vicinity of a particular surgery who have expressed an interest in an appointment and offer them a slot which would otherwise go unused. This ensures that GPs’ valuable time isn’t wasted due to non-attendance. 


Patients can also be sure that there’ll be no bias involved in decisions over who gets offered the appointment. Determinations will be made based on proximity and the likelihood that the patient will be able to make use of the empty appointment slot. Thanks to a reliance on these criteria alone, even unconscious bias from AI programmers won’t impact the process.


Not only does this prevent money being wasted, it also expands access to care for patients in need of medical help and delivers better patient outcomes. This agility is desperately needed in the NHS, and virtual assistants offer a cost-effective solution.


Lightening the load


Virtual assistants bring clear front-line benefits, but they also offer significant improvements from an operational perspective.


Many clerical staff are currently responsible for manual appointment correspondence and scheduling, taking precious time that could be better spent dealing with more complex administrational duties, such as processing prescriptions. This applies at all levels of the health service, from hospital departments to GP surgeries. 


As well as reminding patients about their appointments and helping to fill empty slots, virtual assistants can take responsibility for the full scheduling process and act as the primary patient contact point from start to finish. This is a more efficient allocation of resources, and thanks to analysis driven by access to patient data and full integration with management systems, the process can be conducted more quickly and accurately than if it were done by a human.


In time, we could also see automatically triggered workflows such as the ordering of necessary supplies to support manually scheduled procedures, again based on access to data and integration with systems. This can also help to save time and minimise waste, and machine learning will see the process refined as time goes on.


Seizing the opportunity


AI has the potential to disrupt, but more importantly improve, many different industries, and healthcare decision-makers should be enthusiastic about implementing a technology which can make a significant difference both to patient experiences and operational efficiency. 


News of recent investment in AI for the NHS is welcome, but it’s important that solutions look beyond primary care and diagnostics and also encompass those areas of care which have traditionally received less attention. Only then will we be able to optimise patient care across the board.


Dr. Gege Gatt, CEO of EBO.ai, the artificial intelligence company optimising patient interactions. (https://www.ebo.ai/)


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