AI could act as an ally to health workers and lead the NHS towards recovery post-Coronavirus, argues Michael Noone

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, creating uncertainty and unprecedented modern-day fear, the usefulness of technology has come to the forefront. Without the ability to video chat, shop online, and order groceries and essentials, the frightening situation would shift even further into the disturbing unknown.

Undoubtedly, technology is keeping us connected to our loved ones, and in other parts of the world, AI is going a few steps further in the attempts to combat the virus. In parts of China, the original epicentre of the outbreak, so-called ‘robot cleaners’ have been initialised to disinfect the streets and maintain hygiene standards while citizens have had their activities restricted. Automation and AI have had an immeasurable impact on industries such as banking, mobile phones, retail and travel. The question is, can AI have a similar impact on healthcare in the UK – and should it ever replace the invaluable contribution of migrant staff?

Recent weeks have highlighted the astonishing weight the UK’s healthcare sectors are almost buckling under. For a workforce already under destabilising levels of strain, the Coronavirus has provided a devastating jolt and will surely lead to a soul-searching shake-up for the Government in how it approaches healthcare. An intangible but unmistakable level of stress was already gripping the sector, caused by years of chronic underfunding and staff shortages. At the very least, Free Movement across the continent granted a constant inflow of migrant staff, but this is subject to change in just a handful of months down the line.

The Government’s immigration policy, coming into effect in 2021, will halt migrant carers from stepping foot in the UK as their salary starves them out of being eligible for a General Work Visa. Under the stipulations of the bill, it’s predicted that shortages may spiral to as many as 460,000 care worker vacancies. Yet the Home Office remains indifferent to relaxing the rules, instead encouraging employers to ‘adapt’ to a new system of automation and technology. This follows from a multitude of investment packages, including £250m for AI in healthcare and £34m for the development of ‘care robots’.

There is some manoeuvre for such developments to become revolutionary. Already, the NHS relies on ground-breaking scanners that can detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s and cancers. Overseas, ‘robot pets’ have been proven to soothe autistic children and the socially isolated. In Japan, where a quarter of the population are over sixty-five years of age, the research into, and indeed use of, care robots is a practice the government is heavily subsidising. And as the UK Government reacts on a day-to-day basis to COVID-19, the potential launch of a mobile app by Oxford University which would trace contacts of those who have been diagnosed with the disease is welcomed with open arms.

However, if AI and human staff isn’t balanced, the initiative could come with a very real, human cost. Automated health care certainly joins self-driving cars in the category of public uncertainty. Combine the apprehension of the adoption of AI with the litany of reported errors, and emerging biases around race and gender, and it’s a troubling picture indeed.

The displacement of workers is a primary fear among AI-in-healthcare sceptics, and the fear is entirely logical. Human interaction in health and social care is what provides the comfort and reassurance alongside the practically of treatments and medications. The notion that the role of a care provider could be taken by an artificial being would appear to degrade and undermine just what it is that makes health workers special. ‘Care robots’ simply cannot replicate the warmth and empathy of a real human being; tactile touch that helps dementia suffers, stroke victims, the disabled and the frail is an irreplaceable quality. And, for an ageing population, the idea of robotic care, smart-homes and voice controls is a daunting and unwelcome one.

Yet in order to ease the staffing pressures and lead the NHS towards recovery post-Coronavirus, increased use of AI is perennially touted and tested as a means to ease the human burden. For the mundane, production-line-type tasks within health and social care, there is validation in the argument that AI could be extremely useful. Technology can ease time pressures on healthcare providers, freeing up minutes and hours in the day for them to get on with their jobs. This, of course, relies on cooperation between people and machines; the problem remains that the Government is actively seeking to reduce staffing levels with automation models rather than support them.

Rather than replace workers, technology could function as an ally to health workers. The investment in human talent, and a viable pathway for migrant care workers, remain vital in ensuring AI is used harmoniously alongside people, with human interaction continuing to provide the heartbeat of health and social care in the UK.

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