Artificial intelligence

NHS England Priorities and Operational Planning: What does it mean for Automation and AI?

The NHS England Operational Planning Guidance for 2024/25 has set the stage for a transformative era in healthcare, with a strong emphasis on leveraging data, digital technologies, and automation to drive improvements in access, quality, and productivity across the system. As the NHS embarks on this journey of digital transformation, it is clear that artificial intelligence (AI) and intelligent automation (IA) will play a pivotal role in shaping the future of healthcare delivery.

One of the key themes emerging from the operational planning guidance is the need to level up the digital maturity of provider organisations across all sectors. The £3.4 billion investment in data and technology from 2025/26 onwards is a testament to the NHS's commitment to harnessing the power of digital solutions to transform patient care and staff experience.

As healthcare providers work towards developing robust plans for this technology investment, it is crucial to consider how AI and automation can be integrated into existing systems and workflows to maximise the impact of these digital investments. From streamlining administrative tasks through robotic process automation (RPA) to enabling more personalised and efficient patient care through AI-powered clinical decision support tools, the potential applications are vast and exciting.

Unlocking the Power of Data

Another critical aspect highlighted in the guidance is the importance of implementing the Federated Data Platform to support various initiatives, including elective recovery, care coordination, population health management, and vaccination programmes. This data platform will serve as a foundation for AI applications, enabling healthcare providers to harness the power of big data and advanced analytics to drive evidence-based decision-making and improve patient outcomes.

By leveraging AI algorithms to analyse large volumes of patient data, healthcare providers can identify patterns, predict risks, and develop targeted interventions to prevent adverse events and optimise care delivery. This data-driven approach will be instrumental in addressing the growing demand for healthcare services while ensuring the sustainability and resilience of the NHS.

Transforming Mental Health Services

The operational planning guidance places a strong emphasis on embedding digital technology to transform care pathways in mental health services. By optimising electronic patient records and increasing digital maturity, mental health providers can leverage AI and automation to provide more personalised care, improve clinical productivity, and support improvements in access, waiting times, and outcomes.

Revolutionising Diagnostics

Diagnostics is another area where the NHS plans to make significant digital investments, including in digital pathology, laboratory information management systems (LIMS), and MRI acceleration. These investments aim to improve productivity in pathology and imaging networks, and AI is poised to play a crucial role in this transformation.

Driving Efficiency through Intelligent Automation

While Intelligent Automation is not explicitly mentioned in the guidance, the emphasis on using digital means to drive procurement and commercial efficiencies, as well as reducing the cost of corporate services through digitisation at scale, presents a significant opportunity for automation implementation.

By automating repetitive and manual tasks, such as data entry, invoice processing, and appointment scheduling, healthcare providers can streamline their back-office functions, reduce errors, and improve overall operational efficiency. This, in turn, allows staff to focus on higher-value activities and enhances the patient experience by reducing wait times and improving communication.

Empowering Healthcare Professionals

As AI and automation become increasingly integrated into healthcare workflows, it is essential to ensure that healthcare professionals are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to leverage these technologies effectively. This requires a comprehensive approach to staff training and development, focusing on both the technical aspects of using AI and automation tools, as well as the soft skills needed to adapt to new ways of working.

By investing in the digital literacy and capabilities of the healthcare workforce, organisations can create a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, where staff are empowered to identify opportunities for automation and AI-driven enhancements in their daily work. This not only helps to drive the adoption and success of these technologies but also contributes to improved job satisfaction and retention among healthcare professionals.

Putting Patients at the Centre

Ultimately, the success of AI and automation in healthcare will be measured by the impact these technologies have on patient outcomes and experiences. As healthcare organisations embark on their digital transformation journeys, it is crucial to keep the patient at the centre of all decisions and initiatives.

This means engaging with patients and carers to understand their needs, preferences, and concerns, and using these insights to design AI and automation solutions that genuinely improve the quality and accessibility of care. It also requires a strong focus on data privacy and security, ensuring that patient information is protected and used ethically and responsibly.

By putting patients at the heart of their AI and automation strategies, healthcare organisations can build trust, foster engagement, and create a healthcare system that is truly responsive to the needs of the people it serves.

By embracing the potential of AI and automation, the NHS can not only meet the challenges of today but also lay the foundation for a healthcare system that is more efficient, effective, and responsive to the needs of patients and staff alike. The future of healthcare is digital, and with the right vision, partnerships, and execution, the NHS is poised to lead the way in this transformative new landscape.

Image credit: iStock

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NHE May/June 2024

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