A project has been launched to create a virtual GP using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Those behind the project say that the planned virtual GP won’t replace traditional human GPs but be complimentary.

The University of Essex and digital company Orbital Media, in partnership with Innovate UK, started the four-year research initiative with a combined investment of £250,000.

Paul Brown is practice manager at Stowhealth GP practice, one of the active partners in the development and shareholder and the largest GP practice in East Anglia.

Brown said, “the technology is to develop an online artificial intelligence portal that allows patients to access GP advice on a range of minor ailment conditions in the first instance”.

He added: “So it’s aimed at prevention and self-care, and about accessing without the need to speak directly with, or see, a health clinician.”

The information the virtual GP will advise on will focus on colds, coughs, flu and hay fever, and will use video and avatars to interact with patients.

Brown said the project is “about informing and shaping the demand for GP services. It’s not meant to be barrier, it’s meant to inform and educate”.

NHS England is also using AI to manage the growing demand through a new Babylon Health chatbot that will assist with NHS 111 in parts of London.

AI is also entering the health service through Google’s DeepMind Health.

The search giant , parent of DeepMind, is working with University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in a research partnership for head and neck cancer; and at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to apply machine learning algorithms to detect and segment eye scans automatically.

Brown said that key to making patients engage with this technology was how it is promoted in the GP practice so if patients “feel like they’re being fobbed off there’s a very quick patient response of ‘I don’t like this’.”

Rather than a replacement for a GP, he said, the virtual GP will be presented as a complimentary service and a way of accessing the information more quickly.

Suffolk GP Federation will also be trialling the technology.

The virtual GP AI initiative is being jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and The Economic and Social Research Council.

Brown said the project intends to verify health information for busy people.

“Want some quick readily consumable information that they are confident is the correct advice, whereas if you Google you get a long list and it’s pot luck.”

NHS England is trying to increase the visibility of NHS content online, and provide guidance amidst the plethora of health apps available with its forthcoming app store.

Earlier this month, Juliet Bauer, director of digital experience at NHS England, said that the agency was working with search engines, Bing and Google to promote NHS.uk and NHS Choices, and with Apple to ensure trusted health apps are displayed.

The long awaited app library is due to be launched March 31 in beta mode, with five apps including Babylon Health.