The NHS is overburdened. There are simply not enough hours in the day for doctors and nurses to attend to their patients' needs, while demand for beds is at an all time high, and waiting times for operations have seen a five-fold increase since 2011.
But recruiting more doctors and nurses and building new wards is not the only way to save our NHS and deliver the levels of service that patients expect. Improving productivity in hospitals up and down the UK is part of the answer - but that doesn't mean putting extra demands on an already overstretched workforce. Rather, it means using new smart technologies to dramatically improve capacity - and artificial intelligence could be the answer.
Right now, the NHS is facing two major challenges that are affecting capacity and productivity.
The first is a shortage of doctors and nurses - there simply aren't enough to meet demand. Data from a BBC Freedom of Information request shows that between 2013 and 2015, there has been a 50% increase in nursing vacancies, rising from 12,513 to 18,714. Meanwhile, the number of nursing vacancies across England, Wales and Northern Ireland reached 23,443 by the end of December - equivalent to 9% of the workforce. In comparison, the average vacancy rate across the UK economy was 2.7%. With a lack of qualified staff, the system struggles under demand, and a backlog develops.
This leads to the next problem - a chronic shortage of beds. The overstretched nature of the NHS today means the number of patients forced to remain in hospital due to delays has increased by 80% in the last five years.
Data from NHS England reveals that bed occupancy rates recently topped 89% for the fourth successive quarter. To put that in comparison, the recommended maximum to ensure patients are well looked after and not exposed to health risks is 85% - a rate that's not been achieved since NHS England began publishing this data six years ago.
While training more doctors and nurses is an obvious solution, this may not be enough. Demand for NHS services is soaring, and expected to increase ever more rapidly thanks to our aging population, putting more strain on the system.
More staff isn't the only thing that needs to change - more efficient processes need to be put in place by embracing new technology, namely robot assisted surgery, and eventually, artificial intelligence.
Fortunately, robot assisted surgery is on the up already. In five years' time, one in three surgeries are expected to be completed by robots, controlled by a surgeon at a computer console in the operating theatre, helping to cut down the amount of specialists required in the operating theatre. This means more operations can take place with the same number of staff.
In future, as artificial intelligence becomes more widespread, surgery may be conducted entirely by robots. This means time can be freed up for doctors to devote their time to tasks which specifically require human interaction and emotions when treating patients.
On top of helping surgeons become more efficient, surgeries conducted by robots can also help reduce the strain on hospital beds. Recently, the first kidney transplant carried out by a robot was performed in London. Unlike traditional open surgery, the robot transplant resulted in such limited damage to surrounding tissue for the two patients, that they were able to leave the hospital after just four days rather than a whole week, and took paracetamol instead of morphine as little as two days after the operation.
Artificial intelligence may soon be brought into healthcare to help make such robot surgeries more widespread and even more efficient. The resulting improvements in recovery times thanks to more delicate operations that no human could undertake, means that hospital beds can be freed up, greatly increasing capacity.
With a health service under greater strain than ever, the ever-increasing use of smart technologies and vast improvements in artificial intelligence means healthcare can become more efficient and accessible than ever. Could artificial intelligence help us create a healthcare system that benefits everyone?
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