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Doctor's orders

August 2018

You are probably familiar with Uber – the taxi firm that you contact through your smart phone.  They send the nearest driver straight to you, usually in minutes.  The firm has its problems, mostly related to employment law, but the technology behind it is undeniably impressive. 

What you may not know is that the NHS is experimenting with something similar for General Practitioners, and not just that, they are also testing diagnosis using Artificial Intelligence (AI).   It’s called GP at hand and is being tried in West London. 

On the face of it, the pilot scheme has its points. Once you register with them (you leave your current surgery), it claims to allow you to consult NHS GPs whenever you need them, wherever you are.

It relies on you using a smart phone, but if you’ve mastered that, you can have a video appointment with a doctor within a couple of hours of requesting one, anytime of day or night; they can issue prescriptions at once. If they believe you need a face to face appointment, you can have one within 24 hours.

It’s a genuine part of the NHS, in that the company running it (called Babylon Healthcare Services) is contracted to the NHS; patients pay nothing. 

For those of us who have to wait a week or two to see a doctor it seems almost too good to be true.  What’s more, the video consultation is recorded, and you can replay it any time, to check what was said.

So far so good – but not really innovative, just a more efficient use of everyone’s time, something computers are good at.

However, where the system really is breaking new ground is in the use of AI in the diagnosis process. It can assess your condition before you speak to a doctor; the computer will ask you questions and form a view.   You don’t have to subject yourself to this process, but you are encouraged to, as it acts as a triage system that saves the doctor’s time and may even resolve your issue.

Babylon says that the art of diagnosis is looking at the probability of what might be wrong with you and coming up with the most likely answer.  Machines are potentially much better than humans at this, as they can look at billions of variations of symptoms in milliseconds. The designers of this system claim that their computer can already diagnose 80% of primary care diseases almost as accurately as a good human doctor can, and it’s getting better as it learns.

The system will also do all the administration including writing the notes of the consultation. This saves masses of human time, so in theory doctors can spend more time with each patient actually being a human, rather than scribbling notes or researching.

Anything that saves waste in the NHS and makes it more efficient gets my vote, but I can’t begin to judge the medical benefits or drawbacks.

However, it is yet another example of the creeping, even galloping, expansion of AI and its effect on us all.  Last month I wrote about computers making phone calls for us; this is a step further.  It’s undeniably popular; over 30,000 patients have already signed up, although perhaps it’s no surprise that 85% of them are under 40.  In fact, the growth of the service has been so rapid that its owners have had to seek extra funding from the NHS to cope. 

It’s a fascinating development and when the pilot scheme has been properly evaluated I will report on it to you.  In the meantime, the AI diagnosis bit sounds like a dream come true for hypochondriacs; think of the hours of fun to be had describing your symptoms to it.


To have a look at the service in more detail, click here .

The NHS has a load of other Apps that they are testing – you can read about it by clicking here. It really does look like this is the future

The NHS has also published a ‘roadmap’ showing the plan for greater digitisation of the whole service; click here.: