Happy Birthday NHS! Now bring on the robots

Robo-doc: Xiao Yi, a robot built in China, recently passed the country’s national medical exam.

Will technology save the NHS? The National Health Service turns 70 today, but tight budgets and surging demand have put its future in doubt. Here are five ways futuristic tech could help.

1/ Robot doctors. Last year an android doctor (pictured) “mastered” all the skills needed to pass China’s national medical exams. US researchers are also working on autonomous surgical robots — which some hope will complete operations without human oversight. Meanwhile, a report released in June claimed “carebots” could take on significant amounts of work currently done by doctors and nurses, saving the NHS almost £13 billion a year.

2/ Artificial intelligence. This year Theresa May claimed that using AI in the health service could prevent 22,000 deaths a year by 2033. AI is already being used to spot early signs of skin cancer, heart disease and eye disorders. And some hope it can analyse the NHS’s vast patient records to predict illnesses sooner than traditional diagnoses — saving billions of pounds and thousands of lives.

3/ DNA sequencing. This is the process by which scientists decipher each person’s unique genetic code. Its implications for health care are massive; allowing doctors to administer “precision medicine” (each person’s genes reveal how they would react to certain drugs, or their likelihood of developing certain conditions). As sequencing methods become cheaper, efficient treatment becomes available to more people.

4/ 3D printing. A patient needing a kidney transplant on the NHS will wait for an average of 2-3 years for their operation. With 3D printing, torturous delays could soon be history. Scientists have successfully printed artificial “organoids” — layers of tissue which could one day replace failed organs. The technology can also make custom prosthetic limbs and artificial skin for burn victims.

5/ Smartphones. At 9.22 minutes, the average NHS GP consultation is shorter than in many other developed nations, and many patients wait over a week just to see their doctor. A new way could soon be at our fingertips. Tech startup Babylon Health is developing a smartphone app that uses AI to diagnose conditions as users input their symptoms — bypassing face-to-face consultations altogether.

Will technology save the NHS?

Revived

Absolutely, some argue. Antibiotics, X-rays, MRI machines: look into the history of medicine, and technological advances are the greatest force for positive change. Politicised debates about funding and privatisation are a sideshow. As long as we invest in research and open up to new ideas, the health service will thrive.

Not necessarily, others respond. The best care comes from human interactions — we put foolish hope in digital technologies which are blunt and insensitive. Furthermore, no silver bullet exists to resolve the vast economic issues of an ageing population and chronic underfunding which is pushing the NHS to breaking point.

You Decide

  1. Would you trust a robot to successfully perform surgery on you?
  2. Would it be good to live forever?

Activities

  1. What does the NHS mean to you? Write down the words and phrases that you most closely associate to the National Health Service. Are most of your words positive or negative? Why? Compare them with your classmates.
  2. Do some research into artificial intelligence and the ways it could potentially transform health care. Use the links under Become An Expert to start you off. Then write an essay about the following in your own words: “Artificial intelligence will bring about the single biggest advance in human history. Discuss.”

Some People Say...

“We’re fascinated with robots because they are reflections of ourselves.”

Ken Goldberg

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Some of the technologies discussed here are already being incorporated into the health service. For example, this autumn the NHS will begin to routinely offer genomic medicine to patients. Under the service, cancer patients will have their tumours DNA screened for mutations that can help doctors choose the best drug to use in treatment.
What do we not know?
Precisely how accurate and reliable autonomous robots and artificial intelligence can be in real-world scenarios. For example, Babylon chief executive Ali Parsa concedes that “an artificial intelligence on its own cannot look after a patient.”

Word Watch

Operations
In 2016, the Smart-Tissue Autonomous Robot completed open bowel surgery to a higher standard than human surgeons. However, the patient was a pig, not a person.
Significant
According to the study — led by former health minister Lord Darzi — almost a third of the tasks done by nurses, and nearly a quarter of work done by hospital doctors could be done by robots and artificial intelligence.
Skin cancer
An experiment — led by Holger Haenssle — built an AI machine capable of spotting 95% of melanomas it studied, compared to 86.6% for dermatologists.
Shorter
Data according to a study led by the BMJ. Patients in 28 countries, including Peru and Lithuania get longer with their GP. By current trends, UK patients will have appointments that are 15 minutes long by 2086.
Diagnose
Last month, the app’s developers claimed the technology is more accurate than consultations with human GPs. However, this claim was hotly disputed. See Become An Expert for more.