AI has HAD a lot of bad press recently, with fears of lack of transparency, and lots of hype around a natural fear of humans becoming subjected to the superior intelligence of robots: ie. if ‘robots’ (AI systems) can do all of our thinking for us, does this mean that they will have more ‘power’ than humans do?1
The idea that a machine can think better, faster or more convincingly than ourselves can be challenging. While use of AI as a diagnostic tool has been shown to be beneficial to areas of medicine such as surgery, cardiology or radiology, machine learning of diagnostic methodology has been limited in general practice. For example, AI which uses machine learning based on algorithmic pattern recognition has not been developed to a level of sophistication that can replace the nuanced approach of general practice. We rely on small subtle clues and human empathy to elicit symptoms or aspects of history which are not necessarily expressed, quantified or obvious to the observer.2
GPs have been using AI systems extensively during the past decade. We use AI to collect, analyse and manage patient data in practice. It’s almost impossible to run a practice nowadays without AI. Rapid advances during the Covid pandemic accelerated the use of AI by GPs as remote practice necessitated a move to e-prescribing and automation of communications. What is now anticipated is a move to even more sophisticated new era of AI communications, data management and administrative assistance technology for the practitioner in the clinic.2
Most GPs want to be able to spend more time on clinical work and less time on “paperwork” and data management and admin.3 Managing vast amounts of daily accumulated data can take up hours, which means a loss of patient hands-on contact time. This is frustrating for patients who need to see their doctor reasonably quickly. For the GP, hours spent on clinical admin can be deeply frustrating. From a job satisfaction point of view, the enjoyment of seeing patients can be impacted by the exhaustion of hours at the computer.4
What increasing advances in the sophistication of AI technology can offer general practice is a possible end to or a reduction in the number of hours we need to spend on managing data and clinical admin. AI companies are researching and developing practice software that listens to the consultation, composes the case note, sends the prescription to the chemist, writes a letter of referral to a consultant, and sends a copy of everything to the patient themselves for their own records.5 This is likened to having a virtual secretary taking minutes at a meeting, actioning all the decisions and providing the patient with a care plan to take home with them. Sophisticated AI systems could free the busy GP from the keyboard entirely.
General practice has an increasingly problematic mismatch between supply and demand. More GPs on the ground will help, as well as more ancillary staff.3 But human resource solutions to the GP capacity crisis will take time. Meanwhile, increasing the use of technology by GPs can offer massive gains in providing creative solutions for the future of general practice – a shorter working day with much more time to listen, more time to examine patients, more time to be a doctor. If machines can do some of our thinking for us, the time that is freed up for us to think could be much more valuably spent