UK data scientists, digital media company team up to develop AI chatbots to triage care for NHS

By Heather Mack
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The University of Essex has a plan to save the National Health Services billions of pounds per year: outsource treatment of minor ailments to a fleet of automated, AI-powered general practitioners, available right on a smartphone.

Through a partnership with digital and social media company Orbital Media and Innovate UK, a group of developers, data scientists and research will collaborate for 30 months to develop photo realistic avatars that will function as primary physician chatbots. People can access the service to get interactive medical information on things like coughs, colds and flu, which fall into the category of self-treatable conditions that the NHS estimates account for nearly $2.5 billion (2 billion British pounds) per year of wasted healthcare spending.

It’s not quite telemedicine, or even a fully-versed virtual health assistant, but the developers call it a “visual, reliable and robust online health advice service, to meet the rapidly growing demand for online symptom searches.”

The University of Essex project will focus more on general, easy-to-treat conditions, but it fits in with the wave of smarter, medically focused search engines that have been cropping up in a few places as of late. Boston-based startup Buoy just launched their AI-powered, health specific chatbot in effort to change the status quo of people Googling their symptoms into panic-stricken oblivion. Doctor-booking platform provider ZocDoc also released a patient-focused search engine that can understand natural human language, relieving the need for a medical degree in order to accurately search for health information online. And in another NHS project, an AI chatbot called Babylon is being tested for non-emergency medical triage in north central London.

Symptom-checking for rare conditions may not be in the cards with this initiative, but it could reduce demand on overworked primary care physicians in the UK.

“GPs are currently under immense pressure, with significant amounts of money devoted to dealing with minor ailments," Orbital Media CEO Peter Brady said in a statement. “This comes at a time when the NHS is required to find $27.4 billion (22 billion British pounds) of efficiency savings by 2020. The potential for AI technologies to help relieve pressure from the heavily burdened primary care system is significant.”

Brady noted that even if costs on minor ailment treatment are reduced by 1 percent, the AI technology could still potentially save the NHS almost $25 million (20 million British pounds) per year. Computer scientists working on the project pointed to AI as playing an instrumental role in developing sustainable healthcare delivery models in the future.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning technology have the potential to transform so many aspects of our everyday lives,” Dr. Luca Citi, of the University’s Computer Science and Electronic Engineering school said in a statement. “We are excited about this opportunity to work with Orbital Media to see how we can share our expertise to have a significant impact on how health services might be delivered in the future."