Around 40% of NHS staff and general public ready to embrace a greater role for automation and AI in health care but doubt remains with many

24 June 2021

The Health Foundation calls on policymakers and NHS leaders to invest in infrastructure and skills to enable NHS staff to use automation technologies and AI safely and effectively in the future, and to engage with the public and NHS workforce to build confidence in technology enabled care

36% of the general public and 44% of NHS staff surveyed wanted to see more automation and AI in health care in the future – compared to 21% of the public and 14% of NHS staff who said they would like to see less

When asked to choose which option came closest to their view, 45% of NHS staff felt that the main impact of automation and AI on health care workers will be to improve their quality of work by supporting them and enhancing their capabilities whilst 36% felt it would be to threaten jobs and professional status as these technologies replace humans in an increasing number of areas of health care.

Main perceived risk of automation and AI for the public and NHS staff was health care becoming more 'impersonal' with less human contact.

Research report

Switched on

June 2021
Research report

Analysis exploring the opportunities for automation and AI in health care and the challenges of...

The Health Foundation has today launched a new report which explores the opportunities for automation (for example, using software to automatically analyse patient feedback) and AI (such as using computers to assess X-ray images in order to spot illness or injury) in health care and the challenges of deploying them in practice. Switched on draws on Health Foundation research along with online YouGov surveys of over 4,000 UK adults and over 1,000 NHS staff. The report offers in depth analysis into the challenges and potential presented by automation and AI in health care and highlights wider implications for the future – which will be important as policy makers increase support for the uptake of these technologies in the NHS, such as through NHS AI Lab’s recent AI in Health and Care Award.

When asked which they felt would be the biggest challenges for using automation and AI effectively in delivering health care, 45% of NHS staff surveyed said they felt that patients might not accept these technologies or be suspicious of them and 39% felt that staff shortages or inadequate equipment might make it difficult to use these technologies properly. In its report, Switched On, the Health Foundation calls on Government to explicitly address the workforce, skills and infrastructure needs of the NHS in order to exploit new and established technologies successfully over the long term.

In the Health Foundation’s NHS staff survey, respondents viewed analysis of images and test results as by far the biggest opportunity presented by automation and AI in health care (40%) followed by risk prediction and screening (28%), use of robots in surgery (28%) and demand and capacity management, scheduling and rostering (28%.) Robotic carers and assistants received the lowest response (2%.)

Perceptions of benefits and risks of automation and AI in health care

The majority of both the public and NHS staff surveyed said the benefits and risks of automation and AI are finely balanced. The main perceived benefit of automation and AI in health care for the public and NHS staff was making things more efficient and freeing up doctors and nurses to care for patients (37% for NHS staff surveyed, 40% for the public), followed by providing quicker results and service (35% for NHS staff, 32% for the public.) Just over 20% of both NHS staff and the public felt that one of the main benefits was enabling more accurate tests and treatment. (24% for NHS staff, 23% for the public.)

The main perceived risk of automation and AI in health care for the public and NHS staff was it becoming more 'impersonal' with less human contact (51% for NHS staff surveyed, 45% for the public), followed by health care professionals not questioning the decisions computers make, creating risks to patient safety (42% for NHS staff, 44% for the public.) Nearly a third felt that it would be hard to know who's accountable when things go wrong (29% for NHS staff, 32% for the public.) The Health Foundation is making a clear call to those responsible for implementing change to ensure technologies are co-designed with patients and staff, and to policy makers to support more real world testing and evaluation, and strengthen regulation around automation and AI.

The importance of familiarity

Familiarity with the subject of automation and AI had a significant positive impact on people’s views, suggesting that raising awareness of these technologies will be important in shaping attitudes towards technology-enabled care.  Among the public, those who said they had heard, seen or read ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ about automation and AI in health care felt much more positive than negative about the use of these technologies, by 70% to 26%, while those who answered ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ felt more negative than positive, by 41% to 35%. A similar pattern was evident in the NHS staff survey. Those who said they had heard, seen or read ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ felt much more positive than negative about the use of automation and AI in health care, by 71% to 21%, while those who answered ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ felt more negative than positive, by 40% to 32%. The Health Foundation is calling on Government and NHS leaders to engage with the public and NHS workforce to raise awareness and build confidence about technology-enabled care.

Will Warburton, Director of Improvement at the Health Foundation and co-author of the report, said:

‘The NHS is facing unprecedented challenges, with the pandemic having placed an already strained system under severe financial and workforce pressures. We need to radically change the way that health care is delivered and the NHS must boost its ability to identify promising technologies to help achieve this. However, it is critical that automation technologies are co-designed with patients and staff and used in ways that support empathy, dignity and compassion and do not undermine them. Embedding new technology successfully in health care settings can also require significant training, testing and staff time so it is crucial that Government funds "the change" not just "the tech".

‘There is also a very real risk that automation and AI could widen health inequalities. We know that digital inclusion poses particular challenges given inequalities in access to technology and digital literacy. The upcoming AI strategy must ensure that new technologies introduced to our health care system are designed with the most vulnerable in mind and ideally can help "level up" on health. Automation and AI have great potential in health care but they must be accessible for all.’

Media contact 

Simon Perry

Simon.Perry@health.org.uk

020 7257 2093

You might also like...

Press release

Model that predicts patient risk from COVID-19 wins Florence Nightingale Award for Excellence in Healthcare Data Analytics

Press release

Health Foundation announcement of the winner of the 2021 Florence Nightingale Award for Excellence...

Event

Webinar: Tech and NHS recovery – what you should know

Event

How can technological innovation help speed the recovery of the NHS and sustain high quality care in...

Research report

Switched on

Research report

Analysis exploring the opportunities for automation and AI in health care and the challenges of...

Kjell-bubble-diagramArtboard 101 copy

Get social

We are looking for a Head of People & OD to provide HR leadership and strategic direction to our Executive Team and… https://t.co/jHpiAhdyxs

Follow us on Twitter
Kjell-bubble-diagramArtboard 101

Work with us

We look for talented and passionate individuals as everyone at the Health Foundation has an important role to play.

View current vacancies
Artboard 101 copy 2

The Q community

Q is an initiative connecting people with improvement expertise across the UK.

Find out more