Prime minister Rishi Sunak recently announced artificial intelligence (AI) as the technology the UK needs to be most ambitious with as part of his call to embed innovation across public services, and in particular the NHS.
He said radical innovation will ‘really improve the quality and speed of care’. The latter acknowledging the scale of the NHS’s waiting list backlog. With 36% of patients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment, there is a clear need to explore the role that AI can play in improving access to treatment.
AI augments human capability, not replaces it
Augmenting human capability through AI and automation – especially through administrative support where we register a large degree of workforce burnout in the NHS – can make a tangible difference in times of workforce shortages and increasing healthcare demand.
There’s a common misconception that AI is here to replace human agency. It cannot. In fact, I see the future of patient engagement as a blended service of both technology and human capability. A simple example is if an AI platform cannot understand the sentiment of an interaction with a patient, it is escalated to a person.
For AI to best support the NHS’s challenges, we need to go beyond hospital-centric IT solutions (patient portals or native mobile apps) to patient engagement tools that are empathetically communicative and can support a holistic operational response.
Adoption of such tools relies on the ability to build patients’ trust in AI. At EBO, we achieve this through our AI-powered Virtual Assistant solution which is built based on empathy and natural conversation to help manage most patient requests at scale, in a timely and convenient way.
By understanding natural language, in a multilingual environment, on communication channels that are culturally accepted by the patient, we can better engage patients digitally.
Conversational AI in healthcare can automate patient-facing administrative processes that are repetitive and inefficient enabling the re-prioritisation of staff to more complex activities. Where hospital-centric IT solutions remove the human-touch from digital pathways, our Virtual Assistant restores empathy and compassion by understanding contextual and environmental data.
The ability of Virtual Assistants to understand ‘context’ and hold a human-like conversation also reduces digital literacy requirements and complexity (for example form-filling). It enables asynchronous communication, overcomes language barriers and supports effective access to public health.
Virtual Assistants in action
EBO’s Virtual Assistants are currently automating patient processes at six NHS trusts. One use case with high potential to deliver efficiency gains for NHS trusts is for patients to manage their own appointments via a trust’s website.
If a patient is looking to cancel an outpatient appointment, they would typically visit the trust website finding an instruction to contact the call centre at opening hours. The patient is left frustrated, unable to cancel their appointment on the website at a time convenient to them, directing yet higher volume of calls to the contact centre.
Redirecting patients back to non-digital channels not only fails to alleviate administrative workload but in fact creates a bottleneck of requests for admin teams to manage when the patient phones in.
Virtual Assistants turn the website into a two-way human-like conversation that can apply appropriate compassion to radically improve the patient experience whilst alleviating administrative workload.
They work by using a chat function via the website which integrates with the electronic patient record. Patient messages and questions are interpreted with custom responses crafted in real-time whilst tracking patient sentiment.
It provides an automated pathway to satisfy a significant volume of requests emerging from patients which would otherwise have required human intervention. It also satisfies patient expectations with regards to either immediate response or redirection to a staff member who can address their query.
EBO's AI solution for Somerset NHS Foundation Trust
Accelerating adoption across the NHS
Somerset NHS Foundation Trust is applying conversational AI to more complex use cases for patient-led appointments. Their patients can view their appointments, request cancellations and reschedules quickly and easily using their Virtual Assistant, named Alex by the trust.
Kim Hale, the trust’s Digital Change Lead says that Alex has helped save 24 hours of staff time every week. Automating large volumes of patient administrative requests allows staff to focus on the more complex requests that come into a hospital. “Our booking officers absolutely love our Virtual Assistant Alex, since it does the legwork and they can focus on the patient.”
“Our callers come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, so we worked with our communication to make sure Alex understands all our patients and the different ways they communicate” she says.
With the Virtual Assistant live in three service areas andwith plans to roll it out across outpatient services, Kim says their “goal is to make it easier for patients and improve how we communicate with them”.
Co-producing innovation in the NHS
How can industry and the NHS work together to further patient-centricity goals like Somerset’s through the use of AI and automation technology?
At the NHS Digital Academy Leadership Summit in November we announced , that we’re committing £10 million to help the digital transformation of NHS trusts by turning patient forms into automated conversations, as part of our EBO Health Skunkworks initiative.
It will support up to 20 new projects focused on improving the patient experience whilst reducing administrative burden through the use of health AI Virtual Assistants. We warmly invite NHS teams to join us on this exciting journey.
If you are interested in applying for Skunkworks funding, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0800 009 6963. Alternatively please fill in the contact form by clicking the button below.
Digital Change Lead
Somerset NHS Foundation Trust