Full automation of repetitive and administrative tasks in the National Health Service — including robots at the bedside — would give healthcare staff more time to spend on direct clinical care with patients, a new report argues.
Leading surgeon and former health minister Lord Darzi estimates that the NHS could free up frontline time worth up to £12.5bn a year, almost 10% of its annual running cost, by investing in an ambitious programme of automation.
A further £6bn in productivity gains could be realised by rolling out automation within social care, where 30% of current tasks could be carried out by adopting new technology, Lord Darzi believes.
Communicating medical notes, booking appointments and processing prescriptions are among the activities that could be carried out through digital technology.
Beyond that, the report, published by think tank the IPPR, envisages a possible future in which robots and artificial intelligence (AI) play a key role in assessing, treating and supporting clinical practice to give clinicians more time to focus on direct patient care.
For instance, someone arriving at hospital may begin by undergoing digital triage in an automated assessment suite. AI-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.
In the operating theatre, robotic systems are already able to undertake some surgical tasks such as tying knots and making stitches with greater accuracy and dexterity than humans, and these developments are set to expand in the future.
Meanwhile, bedside robots could assist patients with meals, transportation and portering, and rehabilitation. And biosensors would allow remote monitoring and alerting responses to clinical observations, such as potentially life-threatening sepsis.
“We should not accept an analogue NHS in a digital decade,” the report says.