Data scientists at the University of Essex, UK, are working to create ‘doctor chatbots’, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), who patients can access via smartphones.
The university is working alongside digital media company Orbital Media and Innovate UK, the UK government’s innovation arm.
This group, made up of data scientists, researchers and developers, will work to create photorealistic avatars that function as primary physician chatbots to reduce the number of patients visiting human general practitioners (GPs) with minor ailments, according to Mobi Health News.
NHS adapting to the online world
The developers of the physician chatbot have said that it is a response to “meet the rapidly growing demand for online symptom searches.”
They believe that having a “visual, reliable and robust online health advice service” will allow patients to get interactive medical advice on what are known as ‘self-treatable’ conditions. This includes common colds and flu, sore throats and headaches.
The NHS estimates that these conditions currently account for £2.3 billion ($2.9 billion) worth of treatment that, given the difficulties the service currently faces, could be better spent elsewhere.
Free up time, save on spends
The thinking behind the chatbot is that, as well as freeing up monetary resources, it will free up time for primary care physicians in the UK.
“GPs are currently under immense pressure, with significant amounts of money devoted to dealing with minor ailments,” Orbital Media CEO Peter Brady said in a statement. “This comes at a time when the NHS is required to find $27.4 billion (£22 billion) of efficiency savings by 2020. The potential for AI technologies to help relieve pressure from the heavily burdened primary care system is significant.”
Brady suggested that AI has the potential to save the NHS almost $25 million (£20 million) per year if it was able to reduce costs of self-treatable conditions by as little as one percent.
This is not the first innovation with which the NHS is experimenting, in its attempts to improve patient care while cutting costs. The health service is also trialing an AI chatbot to replace the non-emergency 111 helpline, which will perform triage on non-life-threatening conditions. NHS England is also piloting a remote patient monitoring system to see if the technology improves patient outcomes.
While AI algorithms are becoming much more prevalent in health services across the world, there is no immediate fear that the technology will replace or impinge upon the role of the physical doctor any time soon.