The NHS, like many health services around the world, is under significant pressure. Rising patient demand, the burden of chronic disease and limited resources mean that health systems, and the people who work for them, are being asked to do more and more without a similar increase in funding.
For the NHS, the situation is particularly acute when it comes to GP availability. Earlier this year, figures were released showing that a record number of GP practices had closed in 2016, forcing 265,000 patients to find a new surgery. Furthermore, a recent study carried out by the University of Exeter revealed that two in five GPs are planning to quit within the next five years, with lack of resources and low morale cited as major factors. This is part of a wider trend, with a noticeable impact on patients. In fact, research conducted by Ada found that three out of five Brits say their GP has become less accessible in the last five years.
Our research also found that more than half of patients admit that they have chosen not to see a GP about a health problem on at least one occasion. The three main reasons given were the hassle of getting an appointment, worrying that their health problem was too minor and not wanting to waste the GP's time. This is not only unfortunate, it is potentially dangerous since patients are often not in a position to tell how serious their condition is without expert medical advice.
It is clear that patients are hungry for more information when it comes to healthcare, and are willing to use online services to get it. For instance, 69% of Brits say they now use the Internet to self-diagnose when they have medical concerns. However, while search engines can be a fantastic resource, they are no substitute for expert medical advice and can often be more of a hindrance than a help.
Our research found that trying to self-diagnose using the web often leaves people feeling even more confused and worried: fewer than 50% of the people we surveyed felt that Googling their symptoms actually helped them work out what was wrong, 29% said online diagnoses made them worry more and 20% found the information they got online confusing.
What about more sophisticated health tech, such as artificial intelligence (AI)? While the idea of a fully automated robot doctor is still science fiction, our research found that most patients in the UK are very open to using new technologies such as AI if it can help improve healthcare for everyone.
In fact, over two thirds of Brits would consider consulting an intelligent machine if it could get them more time with their GP, relieve pressure from the NHS, offer more accurate diagnoses and keep their data safe.
This points to a clear role for AI technology within healthcare: AI should be used to help both patients and doctors by facilitating more comprehensive health assessments, earlier diagnosis and better, more informed decision making.
By combining the most sophisticated AI and machine learning technology with an extensive medical knowledge base, an AI platform can act much like a good doctor would, asking relevant, personalised questions based on the information provided and suggesting possible causes for symptoms.
This is what the team at Ada has spent six years researching and developing, because we believe that there is a huge opportunity for AI to save doctors a significant amount of time, enabling GPs to spend more time on patient care. While it is still early days for this technology within healthcare, now that the first AI health applications are on the market we are likely to see rapid progress in this space. This is because true AI platforms have the ability to learn from every interaction, so every patient helps to improve the system as a whole.
Despite what Hollywood might tell us, a fully automated replacement for your local GP is not likely to become a reality soon. The human touch and nuanced approach of an experienced, trusted professional still matter. Even if a machine could replicate those aspects, would we want it to?
However, by augmenting the traditional patient-doctor interaction, rather than seeking to replace it, AI platforms are already improving access to quality health information and care. Over the next few years they will have an increasingly significant impact on health systems, creating efficiencies and driving better patient outcomes. AI holds the promise of making high quality healthcare for everybody affordable and sustainable for the long term - something that GPs in particular are acutely aware is badly needed.