How artificial intelligence can transform NHS patient services

Artificial intelligence (AI) could easily be defined as the technology industry buzzword for 2017, with almost every vendor trying to attach themselves in some way to this rapidly developing trend. Once purely the splendor of sci-fi - with films such as Terminator and I, Robot predicting the demise of the human race - AI is now actively transforming our daily lives, from helping us pay bills to supporting doctors to determine patient ailments.   

In fact, the NHS has recently launched a chat bot to help breastfeeding mums after a survey found fewer than half of new mums breastfed their babies beyond the first two months after birth. Public Health England (PHE) surveyed 500 mums and found that while three in four (73%) breastfeed as soon as their babies are born, less than half (44%) still do so six to eight weeks later.   

Start4Life, the NHS's instant information service for new mums, hopes its newly-launched Breastfeeding Friend (or BFF) will provide support and answers to any breastfeeding questions mothers may have. The bot - which is accessible through Facebook Messenger and available to provide 24/7 support - will address concerns such as whether babies are getting the necessary nutrients from breastfeeding and how to ensure they’re getting the right amount of milk. 

This move will provide mothers with access to vital information and support whatever time of day, while ensuring agents on helplines such as NHS 111 can focus on more immediate and emotionally-challenging requests and calls for medical support. 

Intelligent investments   

This is just one example of how the NHS is investing in AI to improve patient services. Indeed, recent research from Nuance Communications - obtained from a Freedom of Information (FoI) request issued to 45 NHS trusts, with 30 responding - revealed that nearly half of NHS trusts (43%) are investing in artificial intelligence (AI) enabling patients to ‘self-help’ when accessing services. The trusts are harnessing technology such as virtual assistants, speech recognition technology and chat bots to ease the pressure on healthcare workers across their organisations. 

These vital investments are geared up to primarily provide access to information and services all-day, every-day, but they also play a key role in reducing the numbers of patients queuing to see their GP for information they can now access through a virtual assistant.      

24/7 advice and support at our fingertips 

Virtual assistants are becoming increasingly popular with organisations across a number of different sectors, changing the way in which citizens can access to information and services, and enabling 24/7, always-on advice and support.  

The growing use of virtual assistants (or ‘chat bots’) across the NHS is just another example of how organisations are investing to improve the patient experience, and drive efficiency internally. Deploying technology to enable patients to self-help is an important step forward to providing the best possible care. By adding an additional channel for patients to seek information and advice beyond the NHS 111 helpline, health staff are freed up to manage the more complex ailments directly with patients, while giving easy access to information for everyone.   

Reducing the documentation deluge   

While this investment is a clear step in the right direction, the NHS still faces huge challenges in terms of the growing volumes of patients, an aging society and increasing clinical documentation demands (more patients means more documents). Indeed, Nuance Communications recently conducted a piece of Freedom of Information research, which revealed there is still much to do to reduce this clinical documentation burden on doctors. The study found that the vast majority of trust workers are still reliant on pen and paper to build patient records, with 93 per cent admitting staff still handwrite reports. The same number also depend on traditional word processing tools for staff to type up electronic patient records (EPRs).   

Research commissioned by Nuance in 2015 into the impact of clinical documentation in NHS acute care trusts revealed that clinicians spend over half of their work day on clinical documentation. In a more recent Nuance study of UK GP practices, over nine in 10 reported that patient documentation was a considerable burden for their practice and that in 49 per cent of the practices, over half their patient documentation is paper versus electronic format. 

However, by deploying technology - such as speech recognition and artificial intelligence - clinicians can process clinical documents quickly and accurately, reducing the need to outsource transcriptions or hire additional secretarial support. Alongside improving the speed and efficiency in terms of the process of building clinical documents, AI can support the development of more accurate and intuitive clinical documentation, including patient records.   

AI supports doctors to analyse clinical information and helps them to immediately uncover opportunities to further clarify documentation. It achieves this through arming doctors with populations worth of data on conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cardio-vascular issues, supporting them to predict causes of symptoms and suggest next steps in moments.   

With the power of AI, this entire process occurs in real-time and within a doctor’s natural workflow, ensuring consistent recommendations and driving everything from appropriate reimbursement to compliance with regulatory requirements to improved quality outcomes - all while reducing distracting retrospective queries. 

With staff across the NHS already under enormous pressure to deliver first-class services, access to supporting technology to ease this pressure will be key. Yet many doctors are still forced to spend half of their time documenting patient care. While it is encouraging that some departments within trusts are using tools like speech recognition, with nearly all of them still reliant on pen and paper in some form, there is a significant opportunity to drive up this usage across the board.   

Our goal is to bridge the gap between patients, doctors and technology, putting patients in a position where they have access to vital information and support anywhere and at any time, and freeing doctors up to focus on the patients most in need. The combination of these two aspects working in tandem should see a far more resourceful NHS, with delays on the decline and healthier, happier and more informed patients on the rise.    

Frederik Brabant MD,  Chief Medical Information Officer,  Nuance Communications 

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