Clear sight: The AI nurse will see you now

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The UK’s Digital Health Technology Catalyst has agreed to fund an extra-ordinary new healthcare assistant to help cataract patients at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust  with their aftercare support.

Dora is like many trainees in any job: she tries extremely hard, makes some mistakes, but is learning every day.

Nonetheless, you won’t confuse Dora with a standard doctor or nurse if she calls because she clearly identifies as an artificial intelligence (AI).

Dr. Nick de Pennington created the system and based the name of the AI on Metrodora, a Greek physician and author of the oldest known medical text to have been written by a woman.  

He hopes the system can relieve humans working in healthcare from having to undertake some of the more routine follow up calls with patients who have undergone medical procedures.

“Workforce is the biggest challenge to all developed world healthcare systems,” says Nick. “Medical staff are subject to burnout from having to do low level repetitive tasks that could be done by an AI in future. We want humans to work at the top end of their medical licence, doing things that only they can do, from employing empathy to conducting surgery.”

Medical intelligence

Nick himself is a trained neurosurgeon with 15 years’ front line clinical experience and still works four days a week for the NHS.

A graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge universities, he has always been interested in digital systems, and is a co-founder of The Hill, a digital health innovation lab working with members of the Oxford Academic Health Science Network.

Prior to his current project Nick led the development of a digital patient referral system which is now in operation across much of Oxfordshire, and he is fiercely passionate about the opportunities to use more technology in healthcare.

“We are at an inflection point in the healthcare system where digital has the potential to transform provision of care over the next few years,” he says.

Nick founded his latest start-up to create systems that can provide autonomous speech-based monitoring of health.

Ufonia – named after the world’s first speech synthesis engine – is based in Oxford University Innovation (OUI), an incubator set up in 2011 that now houses 25 start-ups.

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Tried and tested

In a successful proof of concept, also funded by the Digital Health Technology Catalyst, Dora has already assessed patient outcomes following knee surgery.

Traditionally patients fill out a questionnaire called the Oxford Knee Score (OKS) after surgery.

While this is a well-established way of assessing post-surgical recovery, the questionnaires are often not completed, are costly to deliver and limit the feedback of participants to fixed responses.

Ufonia worked with the team from Oxford University who authored the OKS to capture the same information using a more natural voice conversation.

The project showed the end-to-end process of patient care is possible using AI.

Dora called patients, asked basic questions in real time about their surgery, and approximated conversation by using a decision tree model. There is a limit to Dora’s competence and capability at present though: for example, she cannot help the patient answer any other medical questions they have like a nurse could do.

She will also get better at understanding different accents and syntax over time.

Nonetheless, Nick says some people preferred speaking with an AI for this routine appointment.

“The AI always calls when it says it will, the patient can stretch the call out as long as they want, it’s non-judgmental and of course everything said is kept completely private,” he said. 

Picture credit: Ken Treloar / Unsplash

Funding the future

Ufonia now has further funding to provide aftercare support calls to 1,000 cataract patients from Buckinghamshire NHS Health Trust.

Mandeep Singh Bindra, Associate Medical Director for Research and Innovation and Consultant Ophthalmologist at the Trust, said: 

“Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust has been a leader in innovation with regards to cataract pathways and we welcome our partnership with Ufonia, which we believe will build on our existing pathway innovations and help develop a system which delivers significant improvements to patient experience and care in an environment where resource struggles to match ever-increasing demand.” 

Speaking about projects across the UK which have benefited from £9 million in total funding from the Catalyst, UK Science and Innovation Minister, Chris Skidmore, said: “these advances in technology, across the UK, demonstrate our modern industrial strategy in action by harnessing the power of innovation”   

Ufonia has also joined the OUI Bright Sparks programme with Vodafone Group to further develop its business model.

Nick Would, who creates connected products and services for the home under the V-Home by Vodafone brand, is mentoring Ufonia.

Nick de Pennington describes Bright Sparks as “tremendous” and says it gives him, “confidence and validation to have support from someone working in a different industry.”

“I’m fully immersed in healthcare,” Nick de Pennington explained. “Seeing how the connected home develops will help Ufonia. There is a blurring line between the home and hospital in elements of patient care.”       

Nick Would agrees, “I’m passionate about what Ufonia can do,” he says.

“At Vodafone we are also thinking about services for the home that can provide proactive wellness and loneliness care so hopefully we can work together at some stage in the future.”

Ufonia is now continuing to raise seed funding ahead of the expected start of the cataract trial. She may just be a trainee today, but like her namesake, Dora is a pioneer – showing how digital technology may transform healthcare systems in future with AI enhancing both patient care and the job satisfaction of health professionals.  

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