Robo GP – a practical reality?

April 25, 2017 11:15 am
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During my University days up in the North East of England, I remember a particularly challenging seminar where we were tasked with writing a Knowledge Based System, the detail of which is now lost to me. But what I do recall is that the challenges were ample; I’m not a naturally gifted writer of code, and my brain capacity was possibly more focused on where you could buy the cheapest beer. The following sentence will show my age; when I was at university studying Business & Information Technology, the internet had been conceived but was not yet in use by the general population. Whilst I remember another seminar on a fanciful idea about “electronic mail”, I don’t recall any further discussion on the World Wide Web and how it would change the known universe.

I do recall the enthusiasm of the Lecturer for the topic at hand.  The idea being that a computer could be programmed to understand a decision tree and the rules around a topic in enough detail to work out the right answer based on a series of Yes/No answers.  But I’m pretty sure my imagination ended at tasks like helping people buy the right product for their DIY ventures; tasks that were disconnected from feelings and emotions.

Such software is now prevalent in many aspects of our lives in various forms. Online searches for loans or insurance help us quickly identify the best options for our needs, but ultimately the human factor is still the deciding factor.

Now it seems that we are ready to let robots diagnose medical issues in place of humans. Babylon Health are at the forefront of this development. Alongside their existing scheme in Essex allowing NHS patients to book webcam consultations with private doctors, they are now piloting a smartphone app in five London boroughs as an alternative to the NHS 111 urgent but non-emergency helpline.

The 111 service is staffed largely by non-medically trained personnel working through a series of questions with semi scripted answers. The service has previously been heavily criticised for the speed of responses and for potentially increasing the number of patients visiting A&E.

Babylon Health’s ‘chat-bot’ is definitely not a human, but it’s bedside manner is surprisingly sympathetic from what I’ve seen. The artificial intelligence (AI) app, which is still in development, gathers information from the user in a series of questions with pre-defined responses to choose from. The responses are matched back to a vast database that is said to contain over “300 million items of knowledge”; the largest of its kind. The app then makes a recommendation as to the best course of action, for example you should make an appointment with your GP, go to A&E, a pharmacy, or settle in on the sofa.

So whilst the Essex trial allows users to access private medical care and raises many concerns about access to timely, affordable health care for all, the pilot of the AI App sits alongside the NHS and aims to improve access to basic health care information and take pressure off existing services.

Reports suggest that 85% of face-to-face consultations with GP’s are unnecessary. Tests focusing on triage cases where the app is focused found that it was accurate in 90.2% of cases. Doctors diagnosed 77.5% accurately, and Nurses hit 73.5%. The app was also much quicker, averaging around 67 seconds (approx. 12 questions), compared to Doctors who averaged more than 3 mins to reach the same conclusion.
Robots are already heavily utilised in operating theatres, allowing doctors to perform more intricate procedures less invasively than before. Video conference type technology allows doctors to review patients remotely but this hardware-based bedside manner seems unlikely to hit the mainstream NHS any time soon.

In an era where AI/robotics are theoretically “threatening” thousands of jobs in other industries, wouldn’t healthcare be a natural beneficiary? With the potential to free up NHS resources under continued pressure will allow highly trained and skilled humans to focus on healing, rather than listening to slightly off-colour patients seeking a little reassurance.

An app might not appeal to everyone, but the advances in voice directed AI are enormous. Have you spoken to Siri recently? Sometimes it actually knows what you’ve said. Surely once this type of AI app proves itself, it could be switched to a more traditional voice-based service that would have a greater appeal.

But for those of us that love an app and currently rely on the internet as the first port of call for any of life’s queries, why wouldn’t you want to avoid the full blown panic of a google based self-diagnosis when you can access credible advice from your phone at any time?

Written by Charlie Woodward, Coriolis Ltd


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