Third of GP time could be freed up by 'automation', says former health minister

Almost a third of GP time and more than half of practice support staff time could be freed up by harnessing the power of technology to automate elements of primary care workload, a former health minister has said.

Lord Ara Darzi (Photo: Charlie MacDonald)
Lord Ara Darzi (Photo: Charlie MacDonald)

Across the NHS as a whole, £12.5bn could be saved by wider use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI), according to a report by former health minister Lord Darzi.

For GPs, automation and AI could free up as much as 31% of time, worth £962m, the report estimates - in addition to a potential 53% time saving for support staff, worth a further £880m.

The report calls for all patients of working age to be offered 'the option of digital consultations with in-person appointments available via easy access facilities at 24-hours’ notice, with access at the weekend and in the evenings' - in an echo of the video consultation service offered by GP at Hand, which has attracted tens of thousands of new patients in a matter of months.

Salaried GPs

It also calls for all GPs currently working for the NHS to be offered a 'right to NHS employment', arguing that the partnership model is no longer 'right for everyone', and suggesting that the small business model can be a barrier to making the leap to primary care at scale - a change the report suggests is key to relieving strain on GPs.

The report backs a long-term funding deal for the NHS, in line with the current government's plans, but suggests the £20.5bn real terms funding increase for the NHS by 2023/24 announced yesterday by prime minister Theresa May is likely to fall well short of what the health service needs.

An interim version of Lord Darzi's report published in April called for an end to NHS austerity, warning that rising pressure on the health service suggested an extra £50bn a year would be required by 2030 to keep it going. The final report reiterates that the government must 'call time on austerity' - backing a long-term funding plan alongside 'bold reform'.

Lord Darzi highlights automation, defined as 'the process by which manual labour, and increasingly human intelligence, is substituted for technology' as 'one of the most significant disruptions of the decade ahead'.

Automated healthcare

The report says: 'An estimated 60% of occupations have at least 30% of activities which could be automated by already-proven technologies. Health and care is less susceptible to automation because it involves more time spent on activities which have a low potential for automation, including caring, applying expertise and managing others. But there is still an opportunity valued at £12.5bn for the NHS and £6bn for social care.'

In healthcare, 'automation will primarily complement human skills and talents, by reducing the burden of administrative tasks - communicating medical notes, booking appointments, processing prescriptions - while freeing up time for clinical decision making and caring', the report suggests.

It highlights 'digital first triage', remote monitoring of patients and improvements in diagnostics as further benefits.

Lord Darzi's report says: 'In the 21st century NHS, it might not be the sound of a bedpan dropping that is heard in Whitehall, but that of a robot picking it up. The NHS turns 70 this year but we must turn our sights to the future. We should not accept an analogue NHS in a digital decade.'

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