Innovative technologies powered by artificial intelligence can boost NHS productivity and help it recover from the pandemic, says Microsoft UK’s Jacob West

Health services around the world are slowly emerging from one of their greatest challenges yet – the Covid-19 pandemic. This is especially true for the UK, with its uniquely complex National Health Service, which now finds itself under unprecedented pressure with millions of people on official waiting lists for treatments.

The “hidden waiting list”, meanwhile, is estimated to be just as long, if not longer, than the official lists, covering those patients who would normally have been seen by the NHS during the pandemic, but for various reasons did not attend or book appointments. As a result, the NHS is expected to face an additional wave of patients who will require more extensive treatments than they might have needed, had they been diagnosed earlier in their illness.

Demand for better outcomes

Recovering from the impact of the pandemic at a time when budgets are under pressure, staffing costs are rising, and energy bills are soaring will be no small feat. There is fundamentally a productivity gap in the NHS – better outcomes are demanded at the same or lower costs. Technology, while not a panacea, can be a part of the answer.

The government has committed to investing 36 billion pounds in health and social care over the next three years to “embrace innovation” in cutting waiting lists. Surgical hubs, virtual wards and Artificial Intelligence (AI) “are key to tackling the backlog and putting the NHS on a sustainable footing,” the government has said. If these ambitions are met, the NHS could deliver 30% more elective activity by 2024/25 than pre-pandemic.

Boost NHS productivity

Staffing in the NHS is tight, and it is impossible to simply find and add nurses and doctors to the workforce. Responsible AI, which has been developed and deployed to adhere to a set of ethical standards, can help to boost the productivity of the NHS by making its processes more efficient and allowing staff to focus their time on direct patient care rather than on repetitive, mundane tasks. Earlier this year, Health Education England published its first roadmap to the use of AI in the NHS in a pledge to integrate innovative technologies into the healthcare system.

AI can indeed transform care with support systems that provide operational analytics, and ambient clinical and diagnostic intelligence. For instance, NHS organisations have developed an AI-powered personalised risk assessment for patients, which helps surgeons to provide clear and transparent advice to patients ahead of potential surgery. The technology not only helps to reassure patients but can also reduce waiting times.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) tools are enabling NHS organisations to automate simple but time-consuming tasks, from patient data input and processing, to booking appointments or fielding basic requests and queries. Much of the administrative burden associated with tackling accumulated cases can be supported by deploying these simple bots. Meanwhile, cutting-edge speech-to-text tools, powered by AI, are also increasingly being used by the NHS to take histories, write up notes and automate follow-up actions, cutting out hours of clinical documentation so that healthcare professionals can spend more time with patients.

Democratise access to AI

At the macro scale, with AI-aided data analytics, NHS organisations can build and implement population health management systems that can prevent illness and deterioration, and ensure that patient care is provided more smartly and efficiently. Critically, this approach will also help the NHS tackle the stark socio-demographic and geographical health inequalities that exist within Integrated Care Systems and across the nation.

Despite the great promise of AI in healthcare, in practice there is a lag in adoption from ‘code to clinic’. This could be reduced with the rise of new ‘low code’ and even ‘no code’ tools. These are democratising access to AI, enabling frontline NHS workers and clinical staff to build their own applications. Individuals are able to customise workflows that previously depended on heavily standardised software solutions, making it easy for NHS staff to improve their operational productivity, without having to rely on the stretched resources of their IT teams.

Balance NHS budgets

A more fundamental accelerant is the migration of healthcare data into a modern cloud infrastructure. Hospitals find this gives them the platform they need for innovation in clinical care. By unlocking the full potential of their clinical data and electronic health records in a secure environment, NHS IT leaders are accelerating the digital transformation of NHS systems. This is enabling, for instance, a much-needed shift to the remote delivery of many elements of the patient journey to include virtual wards – all driven by data, all underpinned by AI.

Responsible AI is powering the future of healthcare. It’s instrumental in ground-breaking research, from new, rapid diagnosis methods, to personalised drug development and delivery. But it can also help to urgently tackle the challenges of today. Delivered on a backbone of a modern, secure cloud infrastructure, software can be a deflationary force in an inflationary world. Responsible AI can help deliver the efficiencies that will make it easier to balance NHS budgets, helping NHS organisations recover in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Jacob West, Managing Director of Healthcare and Life Sciences at Microsoft UK