Smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri are to be used by the NHS to analyse patient conversations and spot if they suicidal, it has emerged.
A new report published today into the technological future of the health service has called for trusts to embrace robots and artificial intelligence and said that London was already planning to embed AI into its mental health services to pick up those in danger of self harm.
Mental health patients can already access online programmes to aid their recovery and it is hoped they would hold conversations with ‘triage bots’ which would notice warning signs.
Facebook has been screening users posts for suicidal thoughts since 2017 and similar technology can now pick up worrying phrases that are spoken out loud.
The report led by US academic Eric Topol said a ‘technological revolution’ was underway which would see 90 per cent of all NHS jobs requiring digital skills within 20 years.
Virtual reality could also be used to help reduce pain and distress for wounded patients, and treat anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Trials are already underway in some areas, such as Oxford, where patients can receive help for a fear of heights by wearing VR goggles.
Artificial intelligence could also save time in interpreting scans such as mammograms, eye scans and pathology slides, and also improve the accuracy of diagnoses.
The report also calls for the use of robots in surgery to be expanded, while they could also automate repetitive tasks such as dispensing pharmaceuticals.
Using phones or Skype for diagnoses and treatment has the potential for significant savings, and free up 5.7 million hours of GPs’ time across England annually, the report concludes.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Our health service is on the cusp of a technology revolution and our brilliant staff will be in the driving seat when it happens.
“Technology must be there to enhance and support clinicians. It has the potential to make working lives easier for dedicated NHS staff and free them up to use their medical expertise and do what they do best: care for patients.”
The report also highlighted the breakthrough in genetic sequencing which will see five million genomes studied over the next five years, speeding up research into cancers and rare diseases.
However the new report also comes with a warning that the wealth of data that will be gathered could be misused.
AI’s ability to mimic human behaviours could be seen as ‘manipulative or deceptive’ so patients must always be made aware if they are communicating with man or machine, it says.
And, while innovation has the ability to redress inequalities, there is also the potential to ‘exacerbate’ them, with evidence that digital health records have lower uptake among the poor and ethnic minorities.
Commenting on the report The Royal College of Physicians said it was vital that regulation was in place to make sure technology was not abused.
Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the RCP, said: “We must also make sure that roll out of technology across the NHS is measured, responsible and done safely.
“Regulation and critical appraisal is vital in ensuring constant evaluation and improvement – which doctors must play an active role in.”