AI Robot

Artificial intelligence? Don’t bot-tle it.

As Jeremy Hunt announced plans for dragging the NHS into the 21st century with a GP At Hand app that gives people access to healthcare via their smartphones, the company behind the technology sparked controversy with their ‘wild assertions’ about the future role of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare.

As Jeremy Hunt announced plans for dragging the NHS into the 21st century with a GP At Hand app that gives people access to healthcare via their smartphones, the company behind the technology sparked controversy with their ‘wild assertions’ about the future role of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare.

At an event held by the Royal College of Physicians, Babylon introduced their new chatbot – and revealed that the machine achieved scores in the final test for accreditation to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) on a par with human doctors.

And how did the RCGP respond to this news? Instead of being excited about how AI could help their GPs perform better and reduce the much-publicised pressure they’re under, they spluttered and blustered about how Babylon could have accessed their confidential tests and questioned the validity of their claims.

So here’s a message for the RCGP: never start a data war with a bot. Bots love data – they more they ingest, the better they perform. As humans, we can’t compete with that – too much information and we’re running off in search of a dark room or a yoga mat. We have other skills; let’s concentrate on those.

AI is a phenomenally brilliant thing that has the potential to radically change the way the NHS delivers healthcare – at a time when nothing but radical change is going to put our ailing institution back on track.

In fact, brilliant things are already happening. The University College of London Hospitals (UCLH) has recently partnered with the Alan Turing Institute – a body that collects all promising university AI expertise in one place. Together, they have introduced projects from improving A&E patient flow (based on machine diagnosis) to identifying patients most likely to miss appointments – and developing appropriate interventions.

Image recognition is so advanced that AI can now identify skin cancer with the same accuracy as trained doctors – and its role in assessing smear test results is also being seriously explored. The UK Medical Research Council recently announced that, by assessing a range of data, AI can predict the life expectancy of patients with heart disorders more accurately than doctors.

But when it comes to bedside manner, a bot makes even a senior consultant look friendly. And however knowledgeable bots may be, they’re still devoid of common sense, as AI advocate Professor Chris Holmes admitted, “While an algorithm might be right 99.9% of the time, once in a blue moon it makes a howler”.

My advice to the RCGP would be to take inspiration from the retail industry – also going through radical change and feeling threatened by digital technology. The retailers that have rejected technology – either through lack of budget, mistrust or lethargy – have struggled or fallen. The retailers that have embraced this progress, and used it to enhance the consumer experience, have coped much better and in some cases even thrived in a tough retail environment.

At Mash our business is all about people – and I talk about the power of human connection every day. And I witness it each time I see a member of our staff interacting with a consumer – the exchange of smiles, the sharing of a moment. That’s why I’m not scared of AI – and neither should the RCGP be. A chatbot could never replace the empathy and reassurance that a human GP can bring – but it could give them more time to concentrate on what really matters: the patient.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

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