Recently, Rishi Sunak outlined a long-term workforce plan for the NHS. It will work to deliver quicker care to the 7.4 million people who are currently on the waiting list for routine treatments in the UK. Although 1.6 million staff work in the NHS, staffing shortages remain a prevalent issue. As pressure mounts – from overstretched ambulance services to strike action – the need to allocate resources effectively is more important than ever.

Health sectors across the world are fast recognising the need to leverage technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and remote monitoring to ease strain on staff and deliver high-quality care. However, it’s understandable that there is some trepidation from patients here. Nothing is so sensitive and personal as health.

That’s why digital transformation in the NHS should be about combining the speed and scale of AI with human empathy. As healthcare leaders look back on the achievements of the NHS over the past 75 years, they must also look at how technology will shape its future and help transform the patient experience for the better.

Routing resources where they are needed the most

A recent study found that AI presented better ‘bedside manners’ than some doctors. That’s because it doesn’t need to sleep or eat and remains unaffected by the strain of long night shifts.

AI might have stamina, but it lacks empathy and heart. It cannot mimic the intuitive empathy of a doctor-to-patient interaction. However, it can drive better outcomes by improving resourcing, and routing patients to the right professional depending on their needs. For example, AI can ensure patients calling 111 in the first instance are triaged more effectively. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) software can identify speech patterns to identify a crisis versus a routine enquiry and route the interaction accordingly for appropriate medical attention. For non-emergencies, it can update customers on estimated wait times and provide options for call-backs.

Organising a queued call-back or generating a text message with recommendations after a phone call with a nurse ensures patients feel heard. People can quickly become upset and frustrated when they are not listened to, so AI must be used as a tool to keep the lines of communication flowing, even when services are stretched.

AI: historian and note-taker

AI, especially thanks to tools like ChatGPT, is great at archiving. It has the capacity to integrate data from electronic health records (EHRs) and accurately record medical notes from a phone call in real time.

The first thing this means for healthcare professionals is that they can review medical history on a call at the click of a button, providing well-informed judgements. The second is improved accuracy. AI can consistently transcribe calls from patients without any trouble, freeing up time for professionals to address ailments straight away, find the right subject matter expert, and reduce lengthy post-interaction write-ups. More than 1.8 million calls were triaged through NHS Pathways in June. If Rishi Sunak’s workforce plan implements AI alongside increased training of new roles such as nursing and physician associates, call volumes can be tackled with even greater speed, empathy, and efficiency.

Improved accuracy and better triage ultimately mean more effective resourcing. For example, nurses can be put in charge of dealing with minor ailments like the winter sniffles, while doctors can focus their efforts on emergencies. Better resourcing has a knock-on effect for patients. With more of the right staff readily available, services improve, waiting times decrease, and the risk of health concerns snowballing into a crisis later down the line is greatly reduced.

Eliminating human error to create secure processes 

One of AI’s biggest strengths is in dealing with big data. Its specialty is making the complex simple. It can sift through administrative tasks (such as updating test results and answering FAQs) very quickly. Automating such routine but essential processes is imperative in a hospital setting where workers are dealing with vast amounts of personal health information. Quick and secure authentication and accurate patient identification is essential.

In call settings, AI can save call handlers 20 to 30 seconds per call when verifying users. That means more calls get answered each day and wait times are reduced. Staff time isn’t wasted on routine tasks such as performing password resets and activating and deactivating employees from backend systems, because automation can handle those common requests. These might seem like small changes, but they can significantly transform internal processes, saving healthcare professionals precious time. An hour typing up notes is time that could have been spent speaking with a patient.

Finally, workforce automation tools can track data collected on incoming calls, using metrics such as volume, length of call and type of call. This information helps drive better services despite a stretched workforce.

Take the example of a holiday weekend or big football match victory – events where accidents are more likely to happen. AI can empower healthcare leaders to better anticipate and manage a surge in call volume. Tools such as predictive modelling can help manage staff’s scheduling in advance.  This will help keep the existing workforce happy and prevent having to hire temporary help at additional expense.

Digital transformation should be an exercise in collaboration

Importantly, the best use cases for AI are always going to be those where it is used collaboratively. The efficiency of AI, combined with genuine and empathetic human interaction, will help to ensure patients receive care that is not only high-quality, but high-speed too. Leaders need to recognise the limitations of AI alongside its strengths. Introducing new technology should never be about removing humans from the equation entirely. In healthcare settings, it should empower frontline staff to deliver higher levels of care.

As we reflect on the impressive achievements of the NHS in its 75th year, leaders will be thinking about what is in store in the years to come. The huge scale of the NHS, with its sprawling network of trusts, presents a daunting yet prime opportunity for transformation. As AI is integrated into long-term plans, decision-makers should make sure empathy underpins every use case.

By Roni Jamesmeyer, Senior Healthcare Manager at Five9

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