Patient self-care is a wonderful concept in theory. Instead of seeing a GP or other health professionals, patients will be encouraged to take care of themselves where possible, alleviating the burden on the NHS.
Helping the drive towards self-care is artificial intelligence. In some cases, it does help; for example, allowing patients to manage certain chronic conditions.
Yet this is only a small part of the proliferation of AI. It’s most visible in ‘symptoms checkers’, which offer patients their own personal triage without the need for human interaction.
Again in theory, this seems like it could relieve pressure on GPs; patients who would have attended surgery can be reassured by a symptoms checker.
But (and I realise this won’t come as much of a shock), the reality is very different. Justified fears over missing a diagnosis mean the algorithms used are naturally risk averse, as our investigation shows. Pretty much every medical scenario we concocted to test the apps ended up with a suggested visit to the GP, normally an urgent one, or even to A&E/999. (One of the few that didn’t was, worryingly, a case of acute pyelonephritis.)
It’s unlikely, therefore, that AI as it stands will reduce workload on GPs or the wider NHS. In fact, I suggest it could increase demand.
What these apps are doing, not least the NHS App itself, is removing the need for patients to exercise common sense and their innate self-care
Because what these apps are doing, not least the NHS App itself, is removing the need for patients to exercise common sense and their innate self-care. It’s part of a long-running trend of infantilising patients that has included campaigns encouraging them to see their pharmacist if they have a cold or phone 111 if they feel under the weather. These apps just make this abdication of responsibility even easier – now, validated advice is in the palm of your hand.
The fact that these apps are devised by experts means patients understandably feel they have a right to the medical attention they suggest, whether it be an urgent GP appointment or calling 999. And, by the time they see a real clinician, their anxiety levels have been raised – possibly for no reason.
Before this infantilisation, patients tended to be pretty good at assessing whether and how soon they needed to see a doctor. And there was an element of taking responsibility for their judgement – a sheepish ‘sorry to bother you doc’ element, that is absent when they have screenshot proof of their urgent need.
Of course, there have always been patients who demand antibiotics or who attend inappropriately on a regular basis – and at the other end of the scale, patients who don’t come in when they really should.
But, let’s face it, these symptoms checkers are unlikely to change their behaviour. So it is hard to see exactly where their benefit lies.
Jaimie Kaffash is editor of Pulse. Follow him on Twitter @jkaffash or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org