An artificial intelligence (AI) triage tool developed by online GP consultation provider eConsult has been awarded NHS funding to be trialled across practices.
It comes as Pulse revealed earlier this month that NHSX and NHS England are considering the viability of a wider roll out of an AI triage model based on that used by Babylon.
NHS England today announced the 38 recipients of a £36m investment in AI projects as part of its three-year £140m AI in Health and Care Award.
eConsult’s ‘eHub’ has been selected as a ‘phase four’ project, which means it will be ‘trialled in several NHS organisations before potentially being adopted across the health service’, NHS England said.
It will ‘undergo robust testing and independent evaluation to ensure [it is] effective, accurate, safe and value for money’.
The tool uses AI technology to ‘intelligently triage and automate GP e-consultation requests, reducing staff time to manage the system’, according to NHS England.
It added: ‘eHub aims to improve clinician efficiency and allow easier interface for GPs and admin staff with eConsult software, reducing errors and improving patient safety.’
Phase four of the programme aims to ‘support the spread of AI products or tools that have market authorisation but insufficient evidence to merit large-scale commissioning or deployment’, NHS England said.
Announcing the second wave of award recipients today, health secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘AI has the potential to completely revolutionise every part of how we approach healthcare, from how we diagnose diseases and the speed at which our doctors and nurses deliver treatments to how we support people’s mental health.’
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens added: ‘Through our NHS AI Lab we’re now backing a new generation of ground-breaking but practical solutions to some of the biggest challenges in healthcare.
‘As the NHS comes through the pandemic, rather than a return to old ways, we’re supercharging a more innovative future.’
A tool for predicting diabetes complications to support GPs with managing patients has also been selected for phase two of the programme, which supports the development and evaluation of prototypes by generating early clinical safety and efficacy data.
The award is being delivered in partnership with NHSX, the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
In May, NHS England issued a letter to all GP practices, ordering them to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients if that is their preference and open their receptions for walk-ins.
However, the health secretary – an advocate for digital-first services – had previously indicated that GPs should continue current levels of remote consulting after the pandemic.
Concerns have previously been raised around the safety of triage apps, including by the CQC and a doctor who was labelled a ‘troll’ by Babylon after he tested its AI app and reported the results on social media.
Meanwhile, Pulse reported that GP practices wanting to turn off e-consultation forms at weekends and evenings due to ‘unmanageable demand’ are facing ‘resistance’ from digital provider eConsult and CCGs.
NHS England said that GP practices should not limit access to e-consultation forms at evenings and weekends – although GP leaders have stressed that practices are currently ‘under no contractual obligation’ to offer e-consultations at all.