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Pulse 2019 review: Hancock goes Back to the Future with AI

The health secretary has been a big fan of Artificial Intelligence this year. Allie Anderson reports 

Fans of the Back to the Future movie franchise behold, for we’re hoverboarding our way speedily towards a society where technology infiltrates every part of our lives – even healthcare.

With the most tech-friendly health secretary in history leading the way, the Government is embracing the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve outcomes.

Plans include a £250m investment to boost AI and genomic testing in the NHS, and a national AI lab to help cut waiting times and detect diseases earlier.

Patients wanting advice about their symptoms will be able to ask Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, and receive health information in response, when an agreed partnership between Amazon and NHS England gets up and running.

It’s not hard to come up with reasons why this might not be the best idea. Top of the list is that the algorithms for tech-enabled healthcare aren’t fool-proof.

What if a symptom checker gives a false negative? Patients could be wrongly assured they don’t need medical help, when they do. The potential consequences don’t bear thinking about.

The opposite scenario, although not as dangerous, isn’t ideal either – and is likely to be much more common.

If a symptom checker generates a false positive, then worried patients will inevitably end up placing unnecessary burdens on NHS resources.

That was borne out when Pulse decided to test four symptom checker apps with four hypothetical medical scenarios, each one presented by a theoretical anxious and non-anxious patient. Most of the apps in all eight scenarios bar one advised seeing a GP urgently, going to A&E, or calling 999.

Perhaps predictably, many of the suggestions would end making the patient more anxious, and ultimately being detrimental to their well-being in the long term.

And we all know where anxious patients end up one way or another: knocking on their GP’s door.

But maybe AI will take us several leaps further. If Hancock and co have their way, it certainly will. Who knows, before long we’ll have patients using technology to perform surgery on themselves.

And where will that leave GPs?

Where we’re going, we don’t need GPs!

Readers' comments (10)

  • How about the DoH employing ACTUAL intelligence before Artificial intelligence ?

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  • Aww look he's playing with his new found toys!!!

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  • Me: Alexa, I’m dizzy.

    Alexa: An ambulance is on its way.

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  • IT relies on verbally expressive patients that can actually explain what they mean. This is not actually very common especially in the most vulnerable populations.
    A lot of the time you actually need to see and examine patients to find out what is needed.
    Not really a surprise.
    The IT will only really benefit the least vulnerable of the population (but probably the ones that vote)

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  • " Where will that leave GPs "

    Answer - they will leave ! And leave the NHS to reap what the Government has sown. I have already disengaged, so I can watch from a distance. I am not going to attempt the impossible, with no resources.

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  • Vinci Ho

    It appears that early 21st century is all about technology . Arguably , our lives have become ‘better’ . Things ares done a lot faster and the virtual distances between people are substantially reduced . The world had suddenly become smaller and globalisation is artificial but also phenomenal. We can gain new knowledge instantaneously but even more fascinating is our ability to share and spread the knowledge, together with our opinions , by simply pressing a button on our smartphones . You would have never known me on this platform for the last decade without this technology.
    Then the quintessential question is , ‘’ Is this too good to be true ?’’ The answer I found on the wall is simply a ‘Yes’ because this technology is made and used by us , human beings. Sooner or later , we use this new ‘power’ to soldier on for our own personal agendas .( well , especially if you believe in the Seven Sins!)
    Every matter has its polarities , positive versus negative , advantages versus disadvantages, left versus right , Yin and Yan etc ( in fact , so often multi-polarities become the reality these days ) . The 21st century seems to have created a new ‘religion’ with its ramifications. It is a ‘force’ but it also has its ‘dark side’ . I do not need to remind you the actual ‘new problems’ brought along after the creation of internet , social media, facial recognition(eventually for national security) or even online purchasing etc .
    And more of a concern to us , doctors , is this blind faith in technology of our political leaders clouding the judgement of exactly how to solve the crisis our health and social care system. Instead , business opportunities are created for tech companies, unicorns and giants ready to prey . Welcome our Babylonians!
    Perhaps , this new ‘religion’ is already following the inevitable path and historical fate of all these known religions currently existing. Instead of uniting all of us because we share some common , universal virtues and values , we are only ‘united’ for the sake of this religion .
    Yes , ‘ may the force be with you’ but there must be a balance of this force as well ........

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  • DrRubbishBin

    "Where we’re going, we don’t need GPs!"
    This is the exact opposite of the most likely outcome .. the article even says as much. At the moment all these algorithms do is generate extra consultations. INPUT - the kind of vague crap people routinely present with when they are worried about their health - clever AI black box - OUTPUT "see a GP urgently" . We'll need more GPs not less

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  • He can't even manage to make electronic prescribing standard in all general hospitals.

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  • Who’s Al, sounds like a clever bloke!

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  • Really, he needs a focus group of sensible GPs on hand to shoot down his latest foolhardy plans. Managing risk is not something done by computers (or clinical advisors, noctors, or whatever you want to call them). Train up more doctors, give them the freedom to manage the demand as they see fit, and support them to redesign structures to help them work better. Do not hoist onto them untested ideas, which would be scorned in a straw poll. I am all for technology, but for F’s sake test it in a small pilot, prove it works, then consider rolling it out. Econsults seem like a total waste of time and resource.

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