Robot receptionists will be used to free up NHS staff under a 15-year workforce strategy to build a service “fit for the future”.
The strategy, due to be launched later this week, will set out plans to use bots to automate booking processes up to 10 times faster than a human, while saving up to 30 per cent in administrative costs.
The plans will call for the use of “robotic process automation” to schedule appointments and operations alongside the use of AI software such as ChatGPT to transcribe doctors’ notes.
On Monday, Rishi Sunak said the plans would “ensure that the NHS is fit for the future” and “modernise the NHS for the long term”. The Prime Minister said the strategy will set out the “largest expansion in training and workforce in the NHS’s history”.
It follows warnings of a looming shortage of more than half a million workers, without radical action to plug gaps.
The strategy is expected to outline plans for tens of thousands of school leavers to be hired straight after their A-levels to start training as apprentice doctors and nurses on the wards.
It will also outline a doubling in medical school places, a major increase in nurse training, and more use of roles such as medical assistants, to do tasks normally done by doctors.
A section on AI and robotics will set out how technology must be harnessed, to fundamentally change the way the health service is organised and interacts with patients, as well as being used for diagnosis and screening.
Harness tech advances
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, is understood to have pushed for the strategy, drawn up by NHS England, to harness the potential of technological advances, in order to maximise productivity and speed patient care.
A source close to Mr Barclay said: “Technology and innovation, particularly AI, are changing the nature of healthcare, and the Health Secretary is keen that they play a huge part in improving diagnosis and treatment, and cutting waiting lists.
“He wants AI to help reduce workload and raise productivity, supporting staff and freeing up their time to focus on caring for patients.”
The report is expected to set out how bots can be used to carry out patient bookings, flag test results and analyse patient referrals – reducing the workload of medical secretaries so more of their time is spent interacting with patients.
Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the NHS on Jul 5, Mr Barclay has already announced a £21m fund to use AI to speed cancer diagnosis.
The programme will see machine learning used to analyse lung X-rays, to diagnose cancer, and to ensure rapid diagnosis of stroke.
The section on AI will set out how such technologies can be used to lift pressure on administrative staff – and to improve the way the health service organises complex logistics.
It will set out plans for more use of software to transcribe medical notes, with bots used to schedule appointments and surgery.
NHS trusts will also be encouraged to use programmes to maximise use of operating time, using software which analyses operating patterns, patient information and staff availability to squeeze up to two extra hours a day out of theatres.
Ministers have said publication of the plan – the first long-term strategy to set out the requirements for the NHS for 15 years – will be a “historic” moment backed by “significant” investment.
As head of the Commons health select committee, Jeremy Hunt called for such a report to be commissioned, but publication has been delayed for months amid discussions between Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care about making financial commitments which span multiple electoral terms.
The strategy aims to wean the NHS off its reliance on overseas doctors and nurses, and to increase home-grown talent.
Recent figures show record numbers of overseas nurses are coming to the UK, making up almost half of new recruits. It will also set out measures to tackle retention, amid concern about the number of experienced staff who are leaving the service.
Statistics from the nursing register released last month show Britain has become increasingly reliant on India, the Philippines and Nigeria, with a seven-fold increase in overseas joiners in the last five years.
Health leaders warned that the NHS must not keep relying on international recruitment to plug chronic staff shortages, raising concerns that countries who needed to keep their nurses were being drained.
A record 7.4 million people are on waiting lists in England — an increase of 220,000 since Mr Sunak made cutting waiting lists one of his five priorities.