Last weekend’s grim headlines included the funding crisis in both health and social care in the UK. If you read only the headlines, you would come away with the impression that leaders in both sectors are screaming for more money to carry on providing the same services, funded by an increase in income tax. 

Thankfully there is recognition that any increase in funding cannot simply be used to provide ‘more of the same’. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, has already said that new funding must be used to change the way that services are delivered. Both sectors must modernise and use technology in a more cost-effective way. Lord Darzi, a former health minister and surgeon, has produced a report suggesting that the use of artificial intelligence and other technology in healthcare could save around £13 billion per year. 

Ten years ago, the answer to the question ‘but how?’ was telehealth. Now ambitions are higher, and the use of artificial intelligence and robotics is expected to be front and centre of any reforms. 

Steep learning curve ahead

This would be a genuine transformation, and the government is taking this seriously. Skills for Care, the UK care sector’s skills agency, has commissioned research into the use of AI and robotics in social care. The agency wants to understand what is already happening in the UK and beyond, and the workforce implications. This is a good start, because it is clear that effective change will have to change the whole social care model. The current model is heavily staff-dependent, and this is not sustainable in the longer term, with an aging population and increasing demand.

The most obvious use of AI in community healthcare, and therefore by extension in social care, is diagnostic: to detect changes in someone’s condition that might mean that they needed help. Technology that detects falls, for example, could save lives, and is already being tested. Other systems can monitor people for other signs that something might be wrong: for example, that they are not following their usual routine. The system can then send an alert for a human partner to visit. These systems are similar to earlier telehealth systems.

There is, however, a big issue in using technology in social care. Analysis suggests that the vast majority of work in the care sector requires human interaction, which means emotional intelligence. This is perhaps the hardest thing of all to provide in an AI system. However, systems have already been developed to provide basic interactions, such as encouraging people to eat or exercise, and guide them around buildings, and it is possible that this may develop significantly in future. 

Other robotics systems are less human, but perhaps more practical in the shorter term. For example, systems that can help lift patients mean that only one care worker needs to attend a patient to lift and turn them, rather than two. This therefore frees up a whole person’s time to do other things, such as spend more time with patients. A robot that could prepare meals would also mean more time for its human partner to spend sitting with patients and chatting. 

Apps such as OnCare and Cera are designed to improve care provision by providing support for decisions. They are expected to be used to supplement, but not replace, existing systems, by helping care workers to make decisions about when to call for help, and what help to request.

Finding the balance in man:machine partnership

This pattern of ‘supplementing but not replacing’ is familiar. It is also in line with voices sounding a note of caution. While algorithms may be better at diagnosis, and may also be able to provide care more cheaply and perhaps more reliably than humans, ‘care’ alone is not the whole story. Loneliness is a big issue in older people. Charities suggest that it is important to think in terms of robots being used to free up more time for health professionals to spend with patients, doing the things that only humans can do: keeping them company, listening to them, and being together. 

Once again, we come back to the suggestion that the most intelligent use of AI is not to replace humans, but to supplement them. The partnership between people and machines allows each to specialise in what they do best. It is both much more efficient, and much more caring. It is also more sustainable in the long term.

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