The NHS is currently experiencing a staffing crisis. According to official figures, one in ten nurses are leaving the NHS each year because of low pay and the pressures of the job. Many nurses from European countries are also leaving because of worries around Brexit, with 3,962 nurses from the European Economic Area (EEA) reported to have left the profession between 2017 and 2018. The service is also struggling to recruit new nurses—according to recent figures, hospitals in the Thames Valley area filled just five of the 1,957 vacancies that were advertised between April and June 2017.
At the same time, as the baby boomer generation retires, the demand for nurses, health, and care workers will only grow in the coming years. A recent report in The Lancet suggested that demand for care homes will double by 2035.
Can technology play a role in bridging this gap? In Japan, a rapidly aging society, there is expected to be a shortfall of 370,000 caregivers by 2025. In response, around 5,000 care homes across the country are testing robots of various kinds, replacing or complementing the jobs of traditional carers.
However, when it comes to our own health service, the answer may be a little more prosaic than futuristic robots. While artificial intelligence and machine learning may sound like space age technologies, they’re actually being deployed more and more in our everyday lives. In the business world, analyst firm IDC predicts that worldwide spending on AI systems will increase by over 50 per cent to $19.1 billion in 2018, compared to 2017.
Consumers are becoming increasingly used to the idea of speaking to AI-powered voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home, and Siri. In fact, comScore predicts that by 2020, 50 per cent of all internet searches will be made by voice. To this point, most people have used them to complete tasks like ordering pizza, doing online shopping, or play music. It’s no surprise then that managers and executives have been slow to see the potential of voice assistants in the workplace. Could the introduction of AI-powered voice assistants help nurses work more efficiently?
Like many industries, healthcare is now overflowing with data—for example, patient data, stats relating to hospital capacity and performance, and information relating to drugs and treatments. The deployment of voice assistants could allow nurses to call up crucial data and information like patient records quickly and efficiently while on the ward, preventing them from having to spend time and effort searching for files or folders on the system. This would allow them to spend time on what they do best: caring for patients.
Voice assistants could also help nurses to diagnose and treat patients. Rather than having to speak to other nurses or asking a consultant, nurses could get a second opinion on symptoms or double-check whether a particular treatment is appropriate by simply asking an AI-powered voice assistant. This would again help nurses save time and allow them to focus on the task at hand. The potential is clear.
The staffing crisis in the NHS is a complex problem and we should always be wary about claiming that technology is a panacea that can solve all of society’s ills. That said, artificial intelligence is growing in sophistication and we are now starting to understand more about the ways in which it can be deployed effectively, as we have seen with the likes of Alexa and Google Home. The deployment of similar voice assistants to support nurses and care workers across the NHS could help to alleviate staffing pressures and allow them to focus on their most important job—giving care and attention to the sick and elderly.