Originally introduced in 2013, 111 serves to alleviate pressure on the NHS’ 999 service by offering medical advice on those cases deemed non-emergency in nature. Since then, demand for 111 has increased to 15 million calls a year, a staggering 650% increase on the volume from 2013! In line with their digital strategy and the 5 Year Forward View, NHS England is trialling a smartphone application that will offer algorithm-based medical advice as an alternative to 111.
NHS 111 will be an experimental trial across the North London boroughs of Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey and Islington. Created by Babylon Health, the AI-fuelled application will allow patients to receive advise sourced from an algorithm powered by an extensive medical database. Depending on the diagnosis, the application will direct the patient to the correct source of medical support – a pharmacy, a call to 111, a visit to a GP or hospital, or remain at home. The algorithm that powers the application can process billions of symptom combinations at speeds much quicker than a medical professional, allowing it to complement the 111 service and the increased demands it is facing. Babylon believes the application can support 12 queries at once, clearly outperforming medical staff when it comes to triage situations.
With our healthcare infrastructure under such scrutiny, there is of course the debate over how effective artificial intelligence can be in a medical situation i.e. algorithms offer a clear-cut response leaving offering no room for interpretation. This only helps to highlight a fundamental limitation that is impacting the health service – the replacement of human interaction with technology. Many would prefer to see investments go to the training of clinical staff that are then supported by new technologies, rather than new technologies serving as front-line support. Whilst new technologies can clearly improve some areas of medical infrastructure, it’s clear to see that rather than investing in long-term measures, we’re now trialling a service that is meant to alleviate pressure on 111, a service that was originally created to alleviate pressure on 999.
111 has faced growing criticism since its inception, mainly with understaffing and lack of access to medical personnel. Such drops in service have triggered an investigation into not just 111 but the whole spectrum of NHS emergency services including primary care, walk-in centres, urgent care and trauma units. NHS 111 could help to alleviate these pressures and give the health service the support it needs to refine and reorganise ahead of the review coming in 2020.
As patients, are we ready to put our medical care in the hands of artificial intelligence? During such difficult times, it’s easy to see why people could continue to go to 999 directly, however we must cast our eyes forward and look at how effective it could be for the wider healthcare service. If we can alleviate pressure on both 111 and 999, such innovations could give the NHS room to breathe when it comes to the provision of medical care. Are we seeing the first step in AI-fuelled emergent care? Only time will tell when the trial concludes this Summer.