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UK patients most sceptical about artificial intelligence replacing doctors

UK patients are among the most sceptical in the world about the prospect of consulting with ‘chat bots’, and having robotic surgery, a survey has found.

In a PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey of 11,000 people from 12 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, carried out by YouGov, only 39% of UK respondents said they were willing to ‘engage with robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) for their healthcare’.

Half of UK respondents (50%) said they were unwilling, and the remainder said they did not know.

Germany was the only other country where the rate of unwillingness to engage was higher than willingness (41% willing, 51% unwilling, remainder did not know).

In contrast, the countries that would be happiest to have their care delivered by AI and robotics were Nigeria and Turkey, where 94% and 85% respectively said they would be willing.

The UK was also the least willing to have minor surgery, such as cataracts and laser-eye treatment, or major invasive procedures, carried out by a robot – 36% and 27% respectively, the report said.

Respondents cited disadvantages with AI healthcare as impersonality, inability to ‘look beyond the data’, as well as concerns about how machines would respond to the unexpected.

According to the report, 17% of existing UK healthcare jobs are susceptible to automation from robotics and AI by the end 2030, but 47% of  UK respondents said ‘the human touch was needed in healthcare’.

The only area where willingness exceeded unwillingness was in the case of remote monitoring for diabetes via phones or online, at 47% versus 40%.

Advantages of more automation included making it quicker and easier to access care, as well as making diagnosis faster and more accurate.

It comes as NHS England has announced plans for using AI and machine learning to triage patients who seek help via NHS 111.

The report said: ‘Beyond the disinvestment required for countries with entrenched healthcare systems [like the UK and Germany] the biggest challenge may well be the fundamental shift in ingrained practices and behaviours by both clinicians and the public.’

But Brian Pomering, PwC healthcare partner, added that younger demographics were more likely to see these new technologies positively.

He said: ‘Well over half of 18 to 24-year-olds [in the UK] would be willing to engage with AI and robotics to take care of some of their health.

‘If only a proportion start to use more services delivered through technology, that could begin to make big savings.

‘This could, in turn, make a serious contribution to addressing the huge financial challenges facing the health system in the UK.’