Would you rather be treated by a fallible human or a compassionless robot? Healthwatch explores people's views on the NHS at 80 and beyond

In the 70th much celebrated year of the NHS, Healthwatch is turning its attention to the future, asking the public some big questions about what they want health and care in England to look like.
A child wearing a Virtual Reality headset. The lighting in the image is blue for a futuristic effect.

Every year the Healthwatch network engages with around half a million people, helping them to find services and working hard to understand their experiences of care.

From this wealth of insight and feedback it is very clear that things are already changing rapidly in how health and social care services help us to live our lives:

  • People’s health and care needs are very different to previous generations.
  • People’s relationships with doctors, nurses and other health professionals are also changing.
  • Technology is revolutionising the types of treatments available and how we interact with services, but also comes with some big practical and ethical questions.

Using these three themes Healthwatch is launching a national conversation to find out more about what people want and expect from hospitals, GPs and care services in the coming decades.

We want people to look beyond the well documented challenges of the here and now, and help us set some clear goals for the NHS and social care sector to aim for. 

With the NHS currently developing a 10 year plan, and a Government Green Paper on social care imminent, never has there been a better time for the nation to have this conversation.

To kick things off, we polled 2,000 people to find out more about what impact people think technology will have on the way the NHS operates in 20 to 30 years time.

We asked people to rank a series of statements where 5 is very likely and 0 is very unlikely. Taking a score of 3-5 as net likely and 0-2 as net unlikely we found that:

  • Almost 4 in 5 people (78% net likely) expect that technology monitoring people’s lifestyles will be common place and will be used to inform treatment options, with a fifth (20%) stating that they think it is very likely.
  • Two thirds (67% net likely) think it is likely to some extent that Artificial Intelligence will be used to diagnose conditions. Only 3% of people thought it was very unlikely.  
  • Some people were more sceptical about the pace of change, with 1 in 10 (12% net unlikely) stating that they think the NHS will still be using fax in three decades’ time. 

Yet just because people think technology will be widely used, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are yet comfortable with the idea. For example, two thirds (70% net likely) think the use of robots in surgery will be commonplace but when given a simple choice:

  • Two thirds (66%) said they would rather be treated by a human doctor who is more likely to make a mistake but offers compassion.
  • 1 in 3 people (34%) said they would rather be treated by a robot doctor that rarely makes a mistake but lacks compassion.

The over 65s were the least likely to choose the robot doctor (with 72% choosing the human). Respondents in the DE social grade (73%) are also significantly more likely to prefer to be treated by a human doctor than those in the AB (61%), C1 (67%) and C2 (65%) social grades.

People are also uncertain about technology being the route to making huge efficiency savings in the NHS. We asked people to rank 1 to 10 in order of importance a range of ways health and care services can ensure they meet future demand. Respondents ranked the increased use of technology to help people self-manage conditions at 9th on the list. This was significantly lower than things like a greater focus on prevention (4th) and improved screening for early warning signs of disease (2nd). Full list included in the notes to editors.

So whilst there is a clear expectation that technology will change the way things work, there needs to be much greater engagement with people about how and why.

This will be vital when the health sector and patients come to try and solve some of the big ethical dilemmas created by things like personalised medicine, wearable technology and artificial intelligence.

With these changes happening fast, Healthwatch is calling on people to share their thoughts to help shape the debate. People can get in touch via www.healthwatch.co.uk/nhs-100 or on social media using #NHS100