By Jonah Comstock  |  January 04, 2017

The UK’s National Health Service will soon begin a trial testing whether or not a chatbot can effectively replace a call center for non-emergency medical triage, according to a report from the Financial Times.

Babylon, a UK-based telemedicine startup, will power the six-month trial in north-central London, which will include 1.2 million covered citizens. Babylon is a major telemedicine provider in its native England. The company’s direct-to-consumer offering starts with an AI-powered chatbot which can escalate up to a video visit if necessary. Triage via Babylon requires about 12 text messages and takes about a minute and a half.

The NHS trial won’t include the video visits that are part of the full Babylon offering, according to TechCrunch: users will only have access to the chatbot, and if it determines a doctor visit is necessary they’ll have to get in touch with their own GP.

The service will replace NHS 111, a non-emergency phone hotline staffed by call center workers who aren’t necessarily medical professionals. According to Financial Times, NHS 111 has come under scrutiny recently for being inefficient and costly, costing British taxpayers upwards of $20 (16 pounds) per call. If the trial is positively received, replacing the whole infrastructure with an app could represent a major cost savings.

The UK is dealing with a doctor shortage and the NHS is looking to AI to help ameliorate the problem. In addition to this partnership, the NHS recently embarked on a high-profile partnership with Google’s AI subsidiary DeepMind to develop medical apps. One app was Streams, which gave doctors information about their acute kidney failure patients, and the other was Hark, which helps doctors and nurses organize information that is currently managed with hand-written notes. The company ran into controversy with the earlier NHS app-development programs, in which DeepMind had access to the full care history of some 1.6 million patients, but came back in November with a new agreement to address those concerns. DeepMind is also working with the NIH on a research project involving eye health.