Robots, robots, everywhere…even when they’re NHS 111 online algorithms

click to enlargeThe NHS continues to grope its way towards technology adoption, gets slammed–but is it justified? The Daily Telegraph (paywalled–see The Sun) revealed a draft December NHS report that recommended that the NHS 111 urgent non-emergency care line’s “enquiries will be handled by robots within two years.” Moreover, “The evaluation by NHS England says smartphones could become “the primary method of accessing health services,” with almost 16 million inquiries dealt with by algorithms, rather than over the telephone, by 2020.” (That is one-third of demand, with one-quarter by 2019.)

Let’s unpack these reported statements.

  • An algorithm is not a ‘robot’. This is a robot.click to enlarge
  • What is so surprising about using algorithmically based questions for quick screening? Zipnosis in the US has been using this method for years as a pre-screener in major health systems. They call it an ‘online adaptive interview’ guiding the patient through branching logic of relevant questions; a provider can review the provided clinical note and make a diagnosis and treatment recommendation in 2 minutes. It also captures significant data before moving to an in-person or telemedicine visit if needed. Babylon Health uses a similar methodology in its chatbot-AI assisted service [TTA 26 Apr 17].
  • Smartphones as a primary means of accessing health services? How is this surprising when the Office of National Statistics says that 73 percent of adults use the internet from their mobiles? 51 percent go online for health information.
  • Based on the above, 66 percent would still be using telephonic 111 services.

It seems like when the NHS tries to move forward technologically, it’s criticized heavily, which is hardly an incentive. Over New Year’s, NHS 111 had a 20 percent unanswered call rate on its busiest day when the flu epidemic raged (Sun). Would an online 111 be more effective? Based on the four-location six-month test, for those under 35, absolutely. Yes, older people are far less likely to use it, as undoubtedly (but unreported) the disabled, sight-impaired, the internet-less, and those who don’t communicate in English well–but the NHS estimates that the majority of 111 users would still use the phone. This also assumes that the online site doesn’t crash with demand, and that the algorithms are constructed well.

Not that the present service has been long-term satisfactory. David Doherty at mHealth Insight/3G Doctor takes a 4G scalpel to its performance and offers up some alternatives, starting with scrapping 111.

Categories: Latest News and Opinion.

Comments

  1. Nicholas Robinson

    NHS Direct was offering its algorithm based assessment system on the web over 5 yrs ago!

    After £80m of redundancies & 5yrs, the Nhs 111 is reinventing the wheel!

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