UK Markets closed

Ministers eye technology to save thousands of NHS staffing hours

New technology could save the NHS an estimated half a million hours a year in staff time by the middle of the decade, under plans to automate some behind-the-scenes tasks.

The Government will publish a new draft data strategy this week, aimed at saving lives by sharing more patient information to give them better access to healthcare.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the changes were being made after the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the need for more effective use of data.

As well as using artificial intelligence (AI), the strategy will promote “robotic process automation”, which uses software to automate back office processes.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said this would save the NHS more than half a million hours a year in staff time by 2025, but would not affect staffing levels.

Trials using AI are also being supported by the strategy, with the aim of replacing one of the two radiologists needed to review breast cancer screens with AI.

Mr Hancock said: “Data saves lives. We need to learn from the pandemic to improve the way our health and care system processes data, giving power to patients and enabling clinicians to use data in new ways to improve patient care and support research for innovative treatments.

“This pandemic has shown us just how many lives can be saved through effective use of data – we must do all we can to harness this potential and the changes brought about through this strategy will no doubt go on to save countless more lives in the future.”

The proposals also include giving people access to view their medical records.

Professor Mark Callaway of the Royal College of Radiologists said AI is “undoubtedly a big leap forward”, but explained the technology is not a cure-all for staffing issues.

“For widespread adoption in the NHS, each programme will need to be rigorously tested and then regulated, and the AI regulatory landscape itself is still developing,” he said.

“Imaging AI is not the panacea for the health service’s human staffing problems, as radiologists and imaging teams do far more than just look at scans, but AI programmes will undoubtedly help by acting as a second pair of eyes and a safety net.”

Pointing to lessons learned during the Covid-19 crisis, the DHSC said staff being able to share data in a privacy-secure way allowed clinical trials to be approved in record times.

This enabled research into treatments such as dexamethasone which the department said saved more than one million lives across the world.