Imagine you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room. You’ve been scanned for pain in your ankle that has been bothering you for some time. The scan was managed by a nurse who was quickly and easily able to use the CT machine to focus on the area of pain as identified on your referral from your GP. So far, so normal – right?

Now imagine the same nurse has told you that the scan results were going to be put into the hospital’s AI platform to diagnose the cause of your pain, the severity of the injury and likelihood of it getting worse? What if the nurse also advised that the platform would decide if a consultant was required to take a further look at the scan? If so, you would be seen within an hour, and if not you would receive a text message advising of the next steps which may involve rest, medication or referral back to your GP or a physio?

Even as recently as two years ago, the very thought would have startled many of us, but the capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning are growing at an incredible rate. As such, the NHS is ideally positioned to begin using this technology to investigate, understand and hopefully address some of the most pressing challenges caused by an increasingly ageing and therefore demanding population.

An initial reaction may be “Well, this means less healthcare professionals, a more impersonal level of care and cost savings”. However, if we consider AI working with Human Intelligence and not replacing it, we could actually (and I’m not suggesting this will be the case within the NHS, which is unfortunately used as a political football) see more effective and focused care and human interactions for those who really need the support of medical professionals.

The NHS are using AI now, today – and looking to blend it with real human care and empathy – and I would argue not before time.

As this article in The Guardian outlines, University College London Hospitals (UCLH) and the Alan Turing Institute are working together to develop AI services and solutions that fit within a patient’s relationship and experience with the trust.

By using AI at the right point (for example, identifying the conditions in which someone may miss an appointment or indeed could become more susceptible to further infection), the trust believes they will be able to better assign their skilled and experienced human resources to the right and most effective point in the patient journey.

There are of course very many challenges to overcome, not least individual privacy (for which in a future post I will talk about ‘Willing openness’), network and system security, and of course, ‘learned helplessness’ – where humans rely so much on computers to inform decision making that they forget their own knowledge. To take a view of Artificial-supported Human Intelligence, as the NHS are beginning to, really does open the door to improved and enhanced care and a much more human approach to supporting those who need it.

So, the possibility for AI to improve the human capability to learn and support one another rather than replacing it? That might just catch on.