Editor Jaimie Kaffash says we should focus on getting the NHS’ basic technology right before exploring ‘robot receptionists’ and the like
The Government and NHS England workforce plan is due this week, but it’s likely we have heard the main points through the constant leaking to the national press. We are sure there will be a doubling of medical school places, the introduction of apprenticeships and moving SAS doctors to general practice.
But perhaps the most surprising element was the announcement that there will be a focus on AI to triage. The limited details we have don’t clarify whether this is in general practice, but with the Government’s obsession with improving triage technology, we can assume that it will be rolled out at some point.
There is a TV trope, satirised by The Simpsons among others, called ‘a wizard did it’. This means where there are plot holes, we introduce a wizard to explain it away. I always feel that the reliance on high tech is a bit like this, and this AI triage is no different.
If it works, then great. But it has to be counted as a bonus if it works – if it turns out to be a pillar of the plan, we are in real trouble. It will be piloted, but even this will only give us slight clues as to its utility – as I have argued before, the ‘innovative’ practices often used to pilot such schemes are not indicative of the wider body of practices.
My main fear is that we can’t even get basic tech right. Practices are facing software crashes on a constant basis, resorting to using pen and paper and facing chaos in their appointment books. To get AI working at a level where it will fill workforce gaps without compromising patient safety will take huge initial investment and – even more importantly – an even bigger maintenance budget. Considering the state of basic tech in the NHS, this will take a major culture change – and one that should start with the basic systems.
AI is shiny and new. And I’m no dinosaur – if it does offer new approaches, we should of course explore it. But get the basics right first. This might not be as exciting as wizards, but it is needed more than ever.