In the United Kingdom, the NHS and care worker sector have been plunged into the battle against Covid-19, right on the front line and in the most dangerous circumstances.
The chronic underfunding of the healthcare system in the UK has been plain to witness for over a decade now. In addition to massive workforce shortages, the recent revelations that the Government refused advice to update the pandemic response protocols and preparation have highlighted a lack of resources at the disposal of healthcare professionals.
As a tragic consequence, many care workers continue to lose their lives in the line of duty at the hands of Covid-19. As dialogue hastens to surround the most effective ways to help our care workers during these unprecedented times, the increased use of artificial intelligence is something the Government already had on the agenda.
Ramping up AI in healthcare
Pre-coronavirus, the Government’s plans for healthcare post-Brexit displayed a desire to focus investment on the ramping up of AI in healthcare, as opposed to investing in migrant care workers. As part of the new post-Brexit measures due to take effect in 2021, an additional £250m is set to be added to the AI spending, but migrant care workers will not qualify for a Skilled Worker Visa.
There certainly is precedent for the positive potential impact of automation in healthcare. With specific reference to Covid-19, the epicentre of the virus outbreak was of course China. As Chinese authorities set about lockdown procedures and their combat strategies, they began using so-called ‘robot cleaners’ on their streets, which would spray disinfectant and maintain hygiene levels outside while the people were stuck indoors.
Tracking apps and temperature scanners are prevalent, and telephone diagnoses have assisted in lightening the load for over-burdened care workers.
Elsewhere, AI robots can be used to detect early signs of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and advancements in surgical automation have produced techniques which can reach areas the human hand simply can’t get to.
Technology has come to the fore during the pandemic, and in the UK, the indicators are that the Government will continue its movement into Automation in healthcare.
Bridging the care gap
Matt Hancock, the health secretary who has found himself often under fire during the coronavirus crisis, said in 2019: “Longer term, technology is the only way we’re going to bridge the gap between finite resources and the growing demand of an ageing population”
While finances have generally had to take a back seat during this unprecedented time, there are suggestions of potentially vast savings to staff costs through increased use of automation.
The Institute for Public Policy Research calculates 30% of work done by adult social care staff could be automated, with savings and improvements valued at £6 billion. And there are positive signs to the potential impact of increased AI in healthcare, as an ally to care workers.
By increasing operational efficiency, AI can free up valuable time for care workers and allow them to concentrate on their work, and not feel quite as stretched as they undoubtedly have over the past decade or more.
So-called ‘Care Robots’ can shoulder tasks such as regular temperature checks, monitoring of breath, and setting reminders. By taking care of these things, staff are able to impart the human touch where it is more necessary.
Communication technology has never been of greater importance than right now. It’s certain that up and down the country, elderly people who were perhaps previously reluctant to engage in FaceTime, WhatsApp or Zoom, will be growing in familiarity with the modern methods.
Japan, whose population of over-65s is a whopping 26%, has been leading the charge with regard to robotic companionship for lonely seniors, and other countries are trialling their own AI companions.
During trials, a classification of so-called ‘Social Robots’, or mobile robotic telepresence (MRT) systems, have already been shown to generate largely positive social interactions with elderly patients. MRTs are essentially video screens on wheels raised to head height that can be controlled remotely using a simple smartphone app.
They allow relatives and social workers to “visit” elderly people more often, even if they live in rural or distant places. The elderly patient doesn’t need to operate the device, leaving them free to interact with their social worker or family.
Of course, it can’t directly replace the human touch but it’s an alternative which is proving quite popular. Similarly, ‘Pet Robots’ have been trialled as comfort for autistic people and many who are socially isolated, and these trials have yielded positive outcomes.
Plans for increased automation
With Covid-19 at the forefront of our minds, the inevitable increase in AI used in healthcare can be positive, if implemented and employed correctly. The Government is seeking to reach savings of up to £13 billion per year with their plans of increased automation.
This money could perhaps be more wisely spent on ensuring the country is in a better place should we face another pandemic.
The time-saving ability of AI can be precious, too. An NHS report suggested that it could save 5.7m hours of GP’s time on an annual basis. Patients have become so frustrated with the shortened time allocations when they visit their GP, so could automation actually guide us towards a return to lengthier human interaction?
Technology can certainly be flawed, and AI in healthcare is no exception. Some AI algorithms have been found to be loaded with human biases around race and gender. The UK Home Office’s own algorithms to scan visa applicants has been shown to be prejudicial.
However, as we attempt to make reason of what is happening in our hospitals and care homes, the implementation of AI can act as an ally to our incredibly valuable doctors, nurses and care workers.