The UK’s National Health Service is rolling out a digital health initiative at one of its leading hospitals to transform the way it triages and routes patients in its system, in an effort that leverages chatbots and telemedicine services.
According to a piece in The Guardian, changes underway at the University Hospitals Birmingham trust are designed to reduce the use of emergency and outpatient services by screening patients before they are seen. The health system is under enormous strain at present, and officials hope this effort will help relieve some of the pressure.
Patients in Birmingham are being encouraged to use a set of interactive tools, including live and automated chat services, online symptom checkers, and video consultations with doctors and nurses. This “artificial intelligence triage” process will take about two minutes, and will guide people as to whether they need to seek treatment.
Among the things trust leaders hope to accomplish is to persuade the roughly 30% of people whose emergency visits were probably avoidable to use the symptom checker instead.
Officials with the trust told the newspaper that technologies could change everything about the way they deliver care. “The way patients access and receive healthcare in Birmingham will be unrecognizable in 5 to 10 years’ time, with technology playing a hugely enhanced role,” trust chief executive Dr. David Rosser said to a reporter.
Rosser predicts that within 2 to 3 years, the trust will move 70% of their 2 million outpatient appointments to this model which, in stark contrast with decades of NHS traditions, will involve caring for patients entirely online without a physical assessment.
However, it’s worth noting that UHB already has some experience with telemedicine. For example, it currently runs virtual clinics for people with liver problems. These consults provide a video link in which the patient sees a doctor on one half the screen and results of tests on the other. And in the future, UHB asked to expand the use of such clinics massively to cover every medical specialty.
According to The Guardian, most UK consumers are already happy to access care online, so this concept probably won’t surprise anyone and may well be readily accepted by the public.
If there’s any controversy regarding this plan, it’s related to the trust’s plans to use Babylon Health as its partner during the transition. UK critics have accused the vendor of luring patients away from the usual general practitioner and getting them to switch to its GP At Hand telemedicine service. The way things work in the UK at present, when a patient joins an outside organization like GP At Hand, the local general practitioner stops receiving annual payments from the NHS, which UK providers say could undermine their business.
Babylon Health, which is based in the UK, began pilot-testing mobile apps for medical evaluation screenings in partnership with the NHS a few years ago.