The (virtual) doctor will see you now: AI project expected to ease burden on NHS

A new project aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology to create automated virtual online GPs.

The University of Essex and digital and social specialists Orbital Media, in partnership with Innovate UK, plan to develop technology that can be used to provide interactive, medically approved health advice via photo-realistic avatars to the increasing numbers of users seeking medical information online.

Information supplied by the platform will focus on minor ailments such as colds, coughs, flu and hay fever, helping people to manage these self-treatable conditions which currently account for a significant proportion of GP time.

The £250,000 project has the potential to revolutionise the way patients are treated, the university said.

Part of the funding for the 30-month project will come from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Innovate UK.

Commenting on the importance of the project for the NHS, Orbital Media chief executive Peter Brady said: “GPs are currently under immense pressure, with significant amounts of money devoted to dealing with minor ailments. This comes at a time when the NHS is required to find £22bn of efficiency savings by 2020. The potential for AI technologies to help relieve pressure from the heavily burdened primary care system is significant. Even if we can reduce the cost spent on minor ailments by as little as 1%, the potential saving to the NHS would be approximately £20m per annum.

“AI has a key role to play in supporting future healthcare needs and this is just the beginning of our exploration into its potential applications within healthcare pathways. It’s hugely exciting for Orbital Media to be at the foreforont of this cutting edge technology, which could produce genuinely revolutionary improvements for our healthcare system.”

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