The NHS is drawing up plans to use ‘bots’ to tackle the Covid backlog by saving staff 500million hours of paperwork in four years.
The health service's digital arm, NHSX, wants the technology - which already automates patient appointments - to speed up the sharing of records between hospitals and GPs.
The ambitious proposals could eventually see the medical records of patients who walk into A&E automatically updated at their GP surgery within 15 minutes.
Currently, the process can take up to four weeks as it is done manually with the records having to be sent between the hospitals and surgeries.
NHSX estimates automating the process could save A&E nurses around 10 hours a week in form-filling - time that they can then devote to treating patients.
The plan comes as more than five million people are now waiting for treatment on the NHS after the pandemic saw its backlog balloon.
Earlier this month, Boris Johnson broke a manifesto pledge to increase National Insurance by 1.25 per cent to raise an extra £12billion a year, most of which is initially due to go to the NHS.
The Government announced an immediate additional £5.4billion to target the NHS backlog, which Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has warned could top 13million if not addressed.
The NHSX bot plan would see a radical expansion of the technology, which is already being used to speed up administrative processes in hospitals.
Bots are computer programmes that can perform simple and repetitive tasks automatically.
The technology is currently used in the health service to send text messages to patients asking if they can attend appointments and then reallocating the slot if the patient texts back ‘no’.
Bots are also used to text or email patients with certain low-level test results.
The bot that loves admin
However, the new NHSX plan is to train bots to be able to update patients records when they come into A&E, a job currently performed largely by nurses.
Under the scheme, the NHS aims to train of GP practices to use the technology over the next two years. Then the bots updating records in A&E departments will be able to notify the GP bots that one of their patients is in hospital and which treatments they have undergone.
Shangming Zhou, a professor of e-health at the University of Plymouth, said automated bot technology was becoming more prevalent in health services around the world, with some US hospitals using them to triage patients with online Q&As about their symptoms.
He said: “The benefit is that it improves the patient engagement and reduces the cost of the NHS, as well as freeing up nurses’ and doctors’ workload.”
Alongside the A&E scheme, NHSX has provided funding to two hospitals, the Royal Free in London and Northampton General Hospital, to pilot the use of bots in automating other admin tasks, such as giving new staff access to shared hard drives.
The body estimates that by 2025 bots could save 579,727 hours a year in NHS manhours, the equivalent of 66 years.
Matthew Gould, the NHSX CEO, said: “This programme has demonstrated the enormous potential for patients and staff of automation in the health service.
“By speeding up dozens of processes that support clinical services, we can improve staff satisfaction and save millions of pounds which could be reinvested in direct patient care.”