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. 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.

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).

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.

5/ Smartphones. Patients can wait over a week just to see an NHS GP. But tech startup Babylon Health is developing a smartphone app that uses AI to diagnose conditions as users input their symptoms — bypassing consultations altogether.

Will technology save the NHS?


Absolutely, some argue. Antibiotics, X-rays, MRI machines: look into the history of medicine, and technological advances are the greatest force for positive change.

Not necessarily, others respond. No technological 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?


  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.

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?
This autumn the NHS will begin to offer genomic medicine. Cancer patients will have their tumours DNA screened for mutations that can help doctors choose the best drug to use.
What do we not know?
Precisely how accurate artificial intelligence is. For example, Babylon chief executive Ali Parsa concedes that “an artificial intelligence on its own cannot look after a patient.”

Word Watch

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.
Last month, the app’s developers claimed the technology is more accurate that consultations with human GPs. However, this claim was hotly disputed.

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