Digital technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) are advancing solutions in healthcare, becoming more prevalent in various sectors of the NHS.
Artificial intelligence has been supporting healthcare staff to help reduce waiting times, speed up processes and improve early diagnosis. Secondary care has been embracing AI over the past few years with diagnostics, assessing x-rays, and predicting bed management. But how is the primary care sector utilising similar technology?
Primary care is facing astonishingly high demand, with over 367 million appointments delivered across England in 2021 alone. Artificial intelligence could be a powerful tool in general practice when it comes to managing this enormous workload.
This article will discuss what we know about artificial intelligence, how it’s supporting primary care and what we can expect from the future of AI.
What is artificial intelligence in healthcare?
AI technology is designed to mimic human intelligence, making conclusions, or performing tasks based on the data that’s available. For example, in primary care, artificial intelligence can be used to detect a potential mental health risk from a description added to an online booking by a patient when requesting a GP appointment.
Artificial intelligence isn’t meant to replace our general practitioners or healthcare professionals. It’s there to assist them in clinical decision making, increase efficiency and reduce administration so they can focus on caring for their patient.
How does artificial intelligence support primary care?
The level of demand in primary care is an ongoing challenge for GPs and other clinicians. With changing expectations for healthcare, medical advancements increasing life expectancy and an aging population, GP practices are now providing more services to more people with more complex needs.
Artificial intelligence can help GPs manage the vast number of appointments that are scheduled every day. AI can be designed to identify urgent or emergency queries, so immediate action can be taken, or referrals can be made for those patients.
GPs are able to manage their caseload by prioritising any patients who are flagged by the artificial intelligence functionality within a software solution. This allows them to respond to those patients more quickly.
GPs need to be able to listen, observe and pick up on small pieces of information so they can diagnose their patient. Any errors or mistakes during this time can have detrimental effects on their patient’s health and wellbeing. Artificial intelligence has the benefit of filtering through consultation descriptions, homing in on specific terms or predictions.
Artificial intelligence gives GPs extra support by highlighting potential risks to be aware of when they’re actively observing their patients. The technology gives GPs quick support to refer patients or offer treatments.
This fast turnaround helps to enhance patient experience with the service as well as improving health outcomes. Quicker responses can also reduce the need for repetitive, time-consuming administration tasks as action can be taken straight away.
Access to other services
Primary care is often the first port of call for people reaching out for help from community services, such as mental health support. By better integrating services, patients can swiftly receive care from the most appropriate healthcare professionals before their conditions deteriorate.
Artificial intelligence within an online consultation solution can flag mental health related queries as needing specific treatment or referrals to community services better suited to the patient’s needs. Because of this, the GP can more quickly identify a patient with a potential mental health issue and in turn refer them onto a mental health service that can effectively care for their needs.
One of the priorities set out by integrated care systems is the need to standardise care throughout the population. The advantage of artificial intelligence is that it removes the potential for any cognitive bias, helping to standardise practices.
By analysing keywords and highlighting critical cases, artificial intelligence can support GPs in determining what next steps need to be taken to support their patient. Because AI can pick up on free text descriptions or terms uploaded by a patient to an online consultation system, it means that patients with certain conditions are less likely to be missed in the appointment booking process.
This reduces the potential of missing out on integral treatments, because no matter when they reach out or where they live, patients are having the same automatic identification due to artificial intelligence functionality.
What’s the future of artificial intelligence in primary care?
Within the NHS Long Term Plan, artificial intelligence was noted as a priority to drive digital transformation with plans to ‘Use decision support and artificial intelligence (AI) to help clinicians in applying best practice, eliminate unwarranted variation across the whole pathway of care, and support patients in managing their health and condition.’
The government also published ‘A plan for digital health and social care’ in June 2022 which mentions a £2 billion investment to digitise the NHS. The plan outlines their priorities, mentioning ‘New diagnostics capacity is being developed to enable image-sharing and clinical decision support based on artificial intelligence (AI). These technologies support testing at or close to home, streamlining of pathways, triaging of waiting lists, faster diagnoses and levelling up under-served areas.’
The plan also mentions the MHRA’s developing new regulations coming into effect July 2023 to support patient safety and best practice in terms of digital software and artificial intelligence.
Furthermore, in 2019 £250 million was established for NHSX to support the development of artificial intelligence in the NHS and social care. One point mentioned looking to ‘identify which patients could be more easily treated in the community, reducing the pressure on the NHS and helping patients receive treatment closer to home’.
According to a recent article in The Telegraph, patients in England being referred to counselling via their GP dropped by a third, from 21,000 a month before the pandemic to less than 15,000 since, despite the levels of depression doubling.
By utilising AI during online consultations to pick up on mental health related queries, patients’ needs are quickly identified, their GP can respond appropriately, and referrals can then be made to community services.
PATCHS, the next generation online consultation solution is designed to make it quick and easy for patients to keep in touch their GP.
PATCHS uses artificial intelligence to flag urgent, emergency and mental health related queries meaning the practice can quickly transfer patient details to the appropriate services.
The AI is a UKCA marked Class I medical device registered with the MHRA, making it a low-risk device to patient health and safety.
The PATCHS solution employs open-ended free-text questions, allowing patients to fully explain the details of their request in their own words. PATCHS utilises two-way messaging, video consultation and image / document upload functionality to give flexibility to online consultations.
PATCHS prioritises requests based on the urgency of the patient’s clinical need. The solution also helps practices to manage their workflow with the option to distinguish between clinical and non-clinical requests during times of peak workload.