Andrew Allum is the Chairman of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
If you were to ask anyone in the UK what made them proud to be British, they would probably name a few things. They might mention standing up to Hitler and defeating fascism, England winning the World Cup in 1966 (although perhaps not so much in Scotland or Wales), or our system of Parliamentary democracy (more unlikely now given current events). Many would also mention the NHS.
In many ways, this pride is understandable. It is great that people can receive healthcare regardless of their financial situation. It wouldn’t be right to see people turned away from receiving medical treatment because they do not have enough money. Or to see people facing crippling medical bills which drive them into poverty.
Anyone who has ever visited a busy A&E department will testify to the professionalism of many of the doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other medical professionals. They very often provide a great service and high standard of care, often in very challenging conditions.
However, we know it’s not all rosy. Increases in life expectancy mean that there will be added pressure on the health and social care systems both now and into the future. This, in turn, will place additional burdens on the already overstretched public finances.
Many contributors to ConservativeHome, including some of my TPA colleagues, talk about the need for systemic reform of the NHS, so that it is financially sustainable while still free at the point of use. But we know how thorny that debate can be.
That’s why it’s important to capitalise on things that can help the NHS improve right now. Our new paper examines the use of AI and automation in health and social care, which we launched today with Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
Ben Ramanauskas, the paper’s author, looked at analysis from IPPR in a 2018 report, using data from McKinsey, NHS Digital, the ONS and the NAO. Those results found that increasing the use of automation and AI has the potential to save the NHS £12.5 billion each year, and the social care system £5.9 billion. This brings a combined savings of £18.5 billion.
So, where do all these savings come from? Well, fewer people could be admitted to hospitals at busy times thanks to software that tracks admission numbers. Fewer people being prescribed medication for mental health conditions as they are able to receive the help they need, when they need it. Virtual eye clinics that diagnose and treat patients without having to attend a physical clinic. These are just a few of the ways in which we can reduce the financial pressures facing health and social care in the UK.
It is not just the financial strain which will be eased. Pressure will be taken off health and social care professionals, too. The technology exists to take up admin work, or collect supplies for patients. There are also robots being used in hospitals and care homes in Japan which help to lift patients and assists them with bathing and other things. These technologies will free up doctors, nurses, and care workers and give them much more time to focus on what they love to do and the thing they do best: caring for their patients.
Not only will automation free up healthcare professionals to focus on patient care, it will create new and exciting jobs. Throughout history people have been concerned that new technologies will lead to job losses and mass unemployment. They have always been mistaken. Some jobs do cease to exist, but new ones are created to replace them. Automation in health and social care is no exception.
It also offers much more flexibility to patients. Meeting with a GP in person will be absolutely right for many patients, as will attending hospitals and clinics. However, we live in an age in which people are increasingly busy and in which people – especially millennials – are used to getting around cities and towns, ordering food, and finding love using their smartphones. Technology allows people to have a consultation with a GP via their smartphone, so let’s use it more widely. This will give greater flexibility to people who would prefer to access medical care in a way which suits them, while also making more in person appointments available for those who need them. Embracing new technology will also allow patients to monitor chronic conditions using their smartphones and to receive advice without having to attend a hospital or a clinic.
The TPA naturally backs changes that deliver savings. But ultimately, embracing technology is primarily about patient outcomes. AI systems which are currently being developed are able to read medical scans and samples much faster, and with a greater degree of accuracy, than doctors and pathologists. This can mean that heart conditions and cancer can be spotted much earlier, thereby increasing survival rates for patients. It will mean that people suffering from mental health conditions no longer have to wait years to receive therapy, people will convalesce more quickly from surgery, and the elderly will be able to receive care in their own homes for longer.
Matt Hancock has shown a welcome willingness to embrace technology. If he succeeds, then we will save vast sums of money, reduce the burden on health and social care professionals, and save lives.