North Central London Integrated Care Board (ICB) has partnered with the Islington GP Federation and digital health firm SPRYT to pilot the use of WhatsApp combined with AI to streamline cervical cancer screening and appointment bookings.

The project, which is funded by NHS London Digital First Primary Care Automation, launched at the Clerkenwell Medical Practice in May 2024 following 18 months of planning.

It is using the AI receptionist tool Asa, developed by SPRYT,  to allow patients to book, reschedule and cancel appointments, as well as ask questions via WhatsApp.

By automating the scheduling process the ICB aims to free up administrative time, reducing the demand on phone lines and allowing admin staff to focus on other tasks.

In a press release published on 16 May 2024, Lucy McLaughlin, head of cancer commissioning at NHS North Central London ICB, said: “Asa is designed to address three key challenges for cervical screening in North Central London, namely low uptake of cervical screening appointments, low engagement amongst some patient population segments, and non-attendance of appointments in primary care.

“We also hope the tool will improve patients’ experiences and help them feel reassured to access the tests they need.”

The AI receptionist incorporates behavioural science and generative AI, which enables it to tailor its language and messaging to different patient groups, with the aim of enhancing communication and engagement.

Dr Doris Dippold, senior lecturer in intercultural communications at the University of Surrey, who advised on the project, said: “This project seeks to understand how language, culture and technological barriers can affect uptake of cervical screening offers.

“We will use evidence from qualitative interviews and analyses of patients’ interactions with Asa to understand how Asa can be developed to better meet the needs of those groups who are currently underrepresented in cervical screening.”

Asa also leverages AI to predict no-shows, providing clinical staff with actionable insights on which patients are likely to miss their appointments.

Dr Bengi Beyzade, clinical lead for ENT and digital at Islington GP Federation and GP partner at Clerkenwell Medical Practice, said: “We hope this exciting pilot will improve access to cervical smear appointments.

“Asa answers patients’ queries about their appointments and supports them attending”.

The system is overseen by a lead nurse and the admin team, who will monitor activity and take action at any point when it is needed.

North Central London ICB expects that the AI appointment scheduling will be deployed across the Islington GP Federation over the next 12 months before being expanded across North Central London and wider London.

The University of Surrey is planning to evaluate the pilot in summer 2024.