The Promising Role of Artificial Intelligence

The UK is currently facing a mental health crisis with 8 million people waiting patiently to be seen or not deemed sick enough to be seen. The NHS is overwhelmed, and many private mental health clinicians have waiting lists of up to six months! The increased demand and disruption following the pandemic means it will take longer to reduce the gap between the demand for mental health services and provision, or potentially it could increase. Over the next few years, demand for mental health services will continue to significantly surpass the provision, resulting in patients trying to access services, not being successful and staff being overwhelmed with a heavy admin burden.

A crisis that couldn’t be ignored, the government is investing £2.3 billion a year by March 2024 in mental health services so an additional 2 million people can get the support they need, and they are also modernising the Mental Health Act for the 21st century. One of the critical areas that can be improved is to modernise communications technologies of GPs, NHS Trusts, hospitals, and private clinics to streamline services, reduce unnecessary admin burden and improve the patient and clinician experience.

frustrated woman

Modernising Telephony

The government announced recently (8th May 2023) that they will be investing £240 million into practices across England to embrace the latest communications technologies. This will enable GP practices to replace their old analogue phone systems with modern systems such as cloud solutions using IP or SIP telephony making them easier to manage, more cost-effective and incorporate technologies such as AI and automation solutions.

This is a very timely move because in September this year, BT will stop selling ISDN and PSTN telephony, and from 2025 will cease to support these systems, so everyone has to update their telephony if they haven’t already.

By modernising telephony and having cloud telephony this provides the flexibility for GPs, hospitals, private clinics to use the latest technologies to streamline processes, reduce waiting times, operate a triage system and introduce the ‘care navigator’ system where by the receptionists ensure that the patients are directed to the most suitable healthcare professional whether that’s an appointment with the GP on the day if urgent, or in two weeks of not, or to a pharmacy or to NHS 111.

Improving Operations

Through modernising their technology and reviewing processes GP practices, hospitals and private clinics can digitally transform their services for the better and patients with mental health problems and other problems will be seen faster and directed to the care they need.

Primary care is the way most people contact their GPs and the government want to modernise the way patients contact them whether that’s online or by phone. The intention is to put an end to the mad rush for appointments at 8.00am on Monday when an average surgery receives over 100 calls in the first hour, and the patient is kept on hold for ages and then told there are no appointments! IVRs can be added so patients get messages that ‘there are no appointments today left, please call back or press 1 if urgent’ etc.

Modernising the telephony systems is not just to improve the patient experience but can also be used for effective planning using analytics to identify busy times to help surgeries manage staffing levels.

Managing Referrals 

The NHS Long Term Plan has increased the IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) accessibility targets by 380,000 people meaning that by 2023/2024 1.88 million adults must be accessing IAPT services.

NHS Trusts are faced with an overwhelming number of referrals for mental treatment such as ‘talking therapy’ CBT. This means that due to the heavy load of admin clinicians spend less time treating the patients therefore leading to a reduced level of service.

The use of AI and automated technology can help reduce the gap between demand for mental health services and provision particularly for ‘talking therapy’ by using it as a virtual chatbot counsellor based on CBT. Although it is certainly no replacement for a human counsellor it could serve as ‘stop gap’ while waiting to see a human therapist or act as the first point of contact before seeing a face-to-face therapist. A staggering total of 87% of people struggling with mental health are now using apps to get help and 31% are using them because they don’t want to wait for face-to-face support (FCC). There are a few well known AI chatbot counsellors on the market today that share success in reducing low level anxiety and depression such as Woebot, Ellie and Tess delivering highly personalised therapy based on CBT and can also interpret non-verbal signs such as facial expressions, posture, or gestures.

A chatbot can talk to the patients instantly in a friendly tone guiding them through the referral process step by step according to their personal needs, re-directing them to services if required and flagging up high risk patients who need to be prioritised immediately. They are affordable, accessible from everywhere, easy to open up to, and clinicians can use them to complement their work such as getting the basic data, tracking the data on the chatbot and using it to plan next session or see patterns of mood and behaviours etc.

An AI chatbot can be used to e-triage and assess what treatment is required and act as first point of contact for the patient. Digitalising processes making them easier to use and speeding up the process, reducing admin, enabling staff to focus on higher value tasks and improving the patient experience.

People have been warned not to use the likes of ChatGPT for virtual therapy as they are not designed for this purpose and to only use trusted well known ones. AI is work in progress and the government are currently in the process of producing regulations and frameworks for AI designs and solutions to ensure they are regulated and assessed before available to the public and to ensure that there are no biases or incorrect information. This is of course critical in the health market and particularly when used for something as sensitive and vulnerable as mental health.

Now with the investment from the government the health sector can embrace the latest communications technologies from cloud, IP, SIP and AI to transform services and improve the patient and clinician experience and patients don’t have to be patiently kept waiting!