Apps may 'support but will never replace' GPs

The Royal College of GPs has responded to claims that a new algorithm can demonstrate clinical knowledge on par with clinicians by stressing that technology may support but not replace medically trained professionals.

Babylon, the company behind the NHS GP at Hand app, revealed its artificial intelligence chatbot at an event held at the Royal College of Physicians and argued that its follow-up software achieves medical exam scores that are on-par with human doctors.

The chatbot AI has been tested on a representative set of questions from the Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioners exam - the final test set for trainee GPs to be accredited by the organisation - achieving a score of 81 per cent. Babylon claims that the average mark for human doctors was 72 per cent, based on results logged between 2012 and 2017.

The GP at Hand service refers users to a human doctor if the app suspects a medical problem, but the new chatbot makes a diagnosis itself. However, the Royal College of GPs has questioned the technology company’s claims.

Martin Marshall, vice chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "No app or algorithm will be able to do what a GP does. Every day we deliver care to more than a million people across the UK, taking into account the physical, psychological and social factors that may be impacting on a patient's health; we consider the different heath conditions a patient is living with, and medications they might be taking, when formulating a treatment plan. Much of what GPs do is based on a trusting relationship between a patient and a doctor, and research has shown GPs have a 'gut feeling' when they just know something is wrong with a patient.

"An app might be able to pass an automated clinical knowledge test but the answer to a clinical scenario isn't always cut and dried, there are many factors to take into account, a great deal of risk to manage, and the emotional impact a diagnosis might have on a patient to consider. This is why the College's MRCGP assessment, which all GPs must now pass in order to practise independently in the UK, has three elements and is designed to test not just clinical knowledge, but also the ability to make evidence-based decisions, and to deliver person-centred care through effective communication with patients and colleagues.

"Technology has the potential to transform the NHS, but it must be implemented in an equitable way, that doesn't benefit some patients, and not others, and is not to the detriment of the general practice service as a whole."

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