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Surgeon and former health minister Lord Darzi advocates using new technology to help address nursing staff shortages and free up nurses to spend more time with patients.

Imagine this. A patient is assessed by a computerised triage app. Another app looks at bed availability. A robot 'nurse' takes a blood sample and, once the patient has been admitted, a 'bedside bot' supports the ward nursing team.

Sound like something out of a sci-fi movie? In fact, these are just the sort of technologies which are currently being developed and trialled in healthcare settings across the globe.

Of course, the aim is not to replace all our dedicated, hardworking nurses with impersonal androids and computer apps. It's all about relieving frontline health professionals of routine tasks and enabling them to focus on delivering the best, patient-centred care.

The debate on increased automation in nursing has been given impetus by Lord Ara Darzi, Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London. The final report in his Review of Health and Care for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) highlights the potential of new technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to help with nurse staffing issues, as well as improving efficiency and productivity.

"It is possible to envisage a future of digital first triage of patients in fully automated assessment suites," says the report. "For inpatients, ‘bedside robots’ may become a reality, assisting patients with meals, transportation and mobilisation (portering patients between places, helping in-patient rehabilitation and moving patients in and out of beds)."

The report follows on from former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's announcement in May this year that NHS staff training needs would be reviewed to prepare them to use new technologies such as AI and robotics. See this previous blog post.

Lord Darzi claims that using automation could free up frontline time worth up to £12.5 billion per year. That's almost 10 per cent of the entire NHS operating budget. According to one of the companies developing automated triage technology, an initial contact with a nurse can take up to seven minutes. Then there's the time it takes to enter the data on the hospital's IT system. An automated app can do the assessment in just three minutes and instantly upload the data.

"In the 21st century NHS, it might not be the sound of a bedpan dropping that is heard in Whitehall, but that of a robot picking it up," concludes Lord Darzi's report. "The NHS turns 70 this year but we must turn our sights to the future. We should not accept an analogue NHS in a digital decade.”

What do you think? Do you think technology can have a role to play in the future of the NHS? Let us know what you think using the comments box below.
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