The Future of Health Care: Protocol for Measuring the Potential of Task Automation Grounded in the National Health Service Primary Care System

By | 16 April 2019


Background: Recent advances in technology have reopened an old debate on which sectors will be most affected by automation. This debate is ill served by the current lack of detailed data on the exact capabilities of new machines and how they are influencing work. Although recent debates about the future of jobs have focused on whether they are at risk of automation, our research focuses on a more fine-grained and transparent method to model task automation and specifically focus on the domain of primary health care.

Objective: This protocol describes a new wave of intelligent automation, focusing on the specific pressures faced by primary care within the National Health Service (NHS) in England. These pressures include staff shortages, increased service demand, and reduced budgets. A critical part of the problem we propose to address is a formal framework for measuring automation, which is lacking in the literature. The health care domain offers a further challenge in measuring automation because of a general lack of detailed, health care–specific occupation and task observational data to provide good insights on this misunderstood topic.

Methods: This project utilizes a multimethod research design comprising two phases: a qualitative observational phase and a quantitative data analysis phase; each phase addresses one of the two project aims. Our first aim is to address the lack of task data by collecting high-quality, detailed task-specific data from UK primary health care practices. This phase employs ethnography, observation, interviews, document collection, and focus groups. The second aim is to propose a formal machine learning approach for probabilistic inference of task- and occupation-level automation to gain valuable insights. Sensitivity analysis is then used to present the occupational attributes that increase/decrease automatability most, which is vital for establishing effective training and staffing policy.

Results: Our detailed fieldwork includes observing and documenting 16 unique occupations and performing over 130 tasks across six primary care centers. Preliminary results on the current state of automation and the potential for further automation in primary care are discussed. Our initial findings are that tasks are often shared amongst staff and can include convoluted workflows that often vary between practices. The single most used technology in primary health care is the desktop computer. In addition, we have conducted a large-scale survey of over 156 machine learning and robotics experts to assess what tasks are susceptible to automation, given the state-of-the-art technology available today. Further results and detailed analysis will be published toward the end of the project in early 2019.

Conclusions: We believe our analysis will identify many tasks currently performed manually within primary care that can be automated using currently available technology. Given the proper implementation of such automating technologies, we expect considerable staff resources to be saved, alleviating some pressures on the NHS primary care staff.

Suggested Citation

Willis, M., P. Duckworth, A. Coulter, E.T. Meyer, and M. Osborne. (2019). The Future of Health Care: Protocol for Measuring the Potential of Task Automation Grounded in the National Health Service Primary Care System. Journal of Medical Internet Research Protocols, vol. 8, no. 4. doi:10.2196/11232Click edit button to change this text.