Automation could save NHS '£12.5bn a year'

AI and robots could perform routine tasks, think tank says

A stethoscope on top of a MacBook keyboard

Automating a number of key processes could save the NHS 12.5 billion a year in running costs, according to a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR).

The report, authored by former Labour and Conservative health ministers Lord Darzi and Lord Prior and to be published in full later this month, said that almost 10% of the NHS's operational expenses could be saved by using new technology.

Another 6 billion could be saved in social care by using automation, the report said, claiming around 30% of social care activities could be automated by adopting new technology to carry out largely repetitive admin tasks.

Tasks such as processing medical notes, prescriptions and booking appointments could all be performed digitally, the report said.

"In the 21st century NHS, it might not be the sound of a bedpan dropping that is heard in Whitehall, but that of a robot picking it up," said the report.

"The NHS turns 70 this year but we must turn our sights to the future. We should not accept an analogue NHS in a digital decade."

IPPR said that society is on the cusp of what is scientifically and technologically possible in terms of health and care.

"Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT) and big data, and new treatments such as cell and gene therapies, all present possibilities to transform health and care," said the report.

IPPR envisages a possible future in which robots and AI-based systems play a key role in assessing, treating and supporting clinical practice to offer clinicians more time to focus on direct patient care.

Someone arriving at hospital may begin by undergoing digital triage in an automated assessment suite. Artificial intelligence-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.

The report said that outside of the NHS, so-called "care-bots" will empower people in old age, enabling better, longer, and more fulfilling lives, and improve social care. Digital systems and "care-bots" will enable people to remain more socially connected to friends and family.

Trials are already under way of robotic pets, which can provide some of the comfort of companion animals without the need to be cared for in return.

Lord Darzi called for the government to embrace a strategy aimed at delivering "full automation" for repetitive and administrative tasks in health and care.

He proposed creating an automation fund to invest in the digital infrastructure needed, and to offer all staff impacted by automation "the right to retrain", with a focus on filling gaps caused by staffing organisations within the service.

Prime minister Theresa May has already promised money to use AI to improve early diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Picture: Shutterstock

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