The data will see you now: Algorithms and the NHS

Much is made of the staff shortages that the NHS may suffer after Britain’s departure from the European Union. Whilst falling European migration is an issue that may be resolved by opening up to more global movement, simply providing more workers does not guarantee that public-sector jobs will be filled ahead of potentially more lucrative private employment. In the near future, technology may yet provide the answer to what seems increasingly to be a political and economic black hole of state-funded healthcare.

The solution could lie in partnerships with the private tech sector in order to utilise the potential of data with ‘virtual diagnoses’. The time and expense taken to train each human doctor is a major contributor to the shortage, and an integrated system would only require one large cash injection. Additionally, future processing power seems likely to surpass the human brain in making accurate decisions. Whilst a human conclusion will be reached by drawing on past experience, a data bank, when joined to advanced diagnostic algorithms, would be capable of accessing near-infinite information to inform a diagnosis, with the added benefit of removing issues like fatigue which might impair human decision-making.

However, this fails to take into account the innate ‘emotional intelligence’ required by many front-line medical staff. It seems that to fully resolve the issue, diagnostic technology would need to factor in the algorithms necessary to understand emotional responses. Incorporating the process that leads to human feeling would be crucial if, for instance, a data system had to make a direct diagnosis of a serious disease. Understanding emotional algorithms in humans would also enable investment in technology-related treatments for mental health, developing the best way to approach matters like mental trauma. Such systems could be refined to the smallest detail, even anticipating the human brain’s processing of the fact that a machine was treating it and acting to prevent this with semantic changes particular to the patient and diagnosis.

Adopting partnerships with the private sector, where technology is a major draw for funding, could help stabilise the state healthcare budget in the UK and address qualified staff shortages. The reduction in cost provided by what is effectively one ‘super-doctor’ could substantially reduce the heavy taxpayer burden of NHS funding. Ultimately, therefore, the medical profession might one day be able to reduce its numbers for the right reason.

Peter Wollweber is the winner of the 18-21 category in the ASI's 'Young Writer on Liberty' competition.