Exclusive: How the UK uses health tech to fight isolation and depression

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Noel Gordon, Chairman of NHS Digital, the tech solutions provider of NHS.

When was the last time you called your grandmother?

In the UK, over 2 million people over 75 live alone, while over a million older people go a month without speaking to a single soul. The country’s National Healthcare Service (NHS) is experimenting to see if AI assistants can be used to tackle social isolation in the elderly, says Noel Gordon, Chairman of NHS Digital.

“Elderly people in particular can talk to Alexa about how they're feeling, what pain they're suffering, and get an immediate response”, he tells GovInsider. Gordon shares how Artificial Intelligence has become central to the UK’s digital health strategy, and the role it can play in mental health.

‘Alexa, I’m sad today’

This approach is part of the country’s “digital first” strategy, where people have access to digital tools to help them determine if they need to physically visit a clinician. Digital can be the key to preventive health, Gordon believes. Experiments with new tech like AI assistants are part of efforts to “understand which technologies work best” for different people and communities, according to Gordon.

NHS is trialling whether AI assistants - starting with Amazon’s Alexa - can detect emotion. “Through voice tone, it's possible to understand not just someone’s physical state, but their mental state as well - particularly whether they're suffering from anxiety,” Gordon remarks. This way, clinicians will be able to “bring emotional intelligence alongside clinical intelligence” in diagnosing patients, he adds.

The next step is to see if AI assistants can play a part in disease prevention and wellbeing, he continues. “So it's helping problems that could arise in the first place - through better lifestyle, coaching, online access to therapies.”

The UK has already launched a new service for providing approved breastfeeding advice via an AI assistant. The service, Breastfeeding Friend, is also available through Facebook Messenger’s chatbot, reported Digital Health News.

AI in healthcare

The UK is trialling AI in two other areas: clinical triage, or the process of assessing the severity of a patient’s condition and how to prioritise it; and helping patients manage chronic diseases better, says Gordon.

NHS patients now have access to an app that can take over some of the workload of the call centres, which receive 21 million calls a year. The chatbot will take about 12 messages and 1.5 minutes to carry out non-emergency triage for a user, Mobihealth News reported. “The point of the call centre is to get advice on what to do and where to go, so a lot of that is analytics-based advice,” Gordon notes.

The chatbot helps keep people out of hospitals if there isn’t a need for them to visit one, he says. “The first place that a lot of people go to when they have a problem is the hospital, and we want to change that,” he explains. “The questions can either recommend you see a trained physician or that you handle the problem yourself by getting to a pharmacy, for example.”

Last year, the UK government announced the opening of five centres to research on healthcare AI and how it can be used to diagnose diseases earlier, reduce manual reporting, and analyse medical images, to name a few.

Down with paper

Underlying the AI trials has been a push to convert paper-based processes to digital ones. UK launched a national electronic health record programme one and a half years ago, starting with 26 hospitals, which would allow them to analyse and use data for better patient care.

Patient discharges are all done digitally. Bed capacity has become more efficient, where the system automates bed allocation depending on the patient’s age and condition. And crucially, a third benefit is safety: “fewer prescribing errors, access to the right treatment and the right clinician, more efficient nursing supervision”, says Gordon.

The next phase will see the EHR system implemented in 25 more hospitals, with the goal of reaching over 200 secondary care locations over the coming years. But going paperless will take time - and longer than expected, Gordon concedes. Initial plans claimed that NHS hospitals would go paperless by 2020, but “we will probably not get there until probably another seven to ten years”.

Spotlight on nursing

With a deepening skills gap and growing lack of manpower, the UK wants to equip its healthcare workforce to be digitally ready. One way the NHS is doing this is by appointing a Chief Nursing Officer, Gordon shares.

Ruth May, the woman at the helm, will work closely with nurses across the country to understand their needs and challenges, and help them to upskill. “Her responsibility is to build a programme for education and training to alleviate some of the work that nurses do, and to make their lives easier and more effective,” Gordon explains.

This move recognises how important nursing is to the healthcare ecosystem, and that “digital technologies have as much of a contribution to make to nursing as they do to the clinical workforce”, according to him. Similarly, the next generation of nurses will undoubtedly be expected to have digital skills as more hospitals go paperless, he adds.

Health tech is transforming the healthcare landscape in the UK and beyond. Artificial intelligence is helping clinicians to diagnose better, cut errors, and reach more patients. It is also giving mental health a boost, helping the silver generation lead more contented lives.