UK’s NHS to launch the first physiotherapy clinic run by AI

The first AI-run physiotherapy clinic by the UK's NHS is set to be launched this year, aiming to cut down on waiting times amidst growing demand and staff shortages. The innovative platform will offer same-day automated video appointments with a digital physiotherapist via an app that interacts with patient information in real time.

As the first platform of its kind to be approved by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) as a registered healthcare provider, this initiative marks a significant milestone in integrating AI within healthcare services.

How does it work?

Patients needing physiotherapy for issues like back pain can be referred to the platform, Flok Health, through community or primary care settings — such as their GP, or they can self-refer. The service promises faster care and aims to reduce the pressure on clinicians.

The platform utilizes AI to provide an initial video assessment, prescribe exercises, and manage pain through weekly video appointments. The AI physiotherapist adapts treatment plans based on patient feedback and progress, ensuring personalized care.

In a series of three-month pilot studies conducted between May and December 2023, over 1000 NHS staff suffering from back pain used the AI service. Participants reported high satisfaction levels, with many indicating that the AI experience was as good or better than traditional physiotherapy.

Specifically, 97% of patients in the NHS Lothian pilot received automated triage outcomes, and 92% were immediately approved for AI physiotherapy and received same-day appointments.

The AI physiotherapy platform initially evaluates patients through a video assessment. Once symptoms are assessed, the digital physiotherapist prescribes a personalized treatment plan that includes exercises and pain management techniques. The system continuously monitors symptoms and adjusts treatments based on patient feedback, making the care experience highly individualized.

Why does it matter?

The rollout of this AI-driven clinic is a critical response to the increasing demand for physiotherapy services. Waiting lists for musculoskeletal (MSK) treatments in the UK — including conditions like back, neck, and knee pain — have grown by 27% since January of last year. According to the NHS, over 30 million working days are lost annually in the UK due to MSK conditions, accounting for up to 30% of GP consultations in England. This significant demand underscores the urgent need for more efficient healthcare solutions.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) acknowledges AI's potential to support physiotherapists but emphasizes that AI cannot yet replace the clinical judgment and nuanced care provided by human professionals.

CSP health informatics lead, Euan McComiskie, commented: "There is no doubt that more needs to be done to tackle huge NHS waiting lists, particularly for musculoskeletal services, and AI has huge potential to be an adjunct to the work of physiotherapists. However, AI cannot yet replicate the clinical judgment and skills of a physiotherapist, who is required to be registered with a statutory regulator, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)."

Despite these reservations, initial trials have shown promising results, with high patient satisfaction and significant symptom improvements. The digital clinic has also demonstrated its ability to reduce waiting times for physiotherapy, making it an essential tool in addressing NHS staff shortages and patient care demands.

The context

The introduction of the AI physiotherapy clinic comes at a time when the UK NHS is grappling with increased waiting lists and a shortage of physiotherapy staff. More than 30 million working days are lost annually in the UK due to MSK conditions, which also account for a significant portion of GP consultations. The CSP has highlighted the growing complexity of patient needs and the necessity for tailored treatments, underscoring the importance of continued research and development in AI healthcare solutions.

The Flok app, co-founded by medic and former professional rower Finn Stevenson, is a pioneering solution, having received CQC approval and MHRA medical device clearance. This development signifies a leap in healthcare technology and underscores the ongoing need for innovation to enhance patient access, safety, and overall healthcare experience. Initial trials have shown that more than four in five participants reported improved symptoms during treatment with the platform, and waiting lists for in-person musculoskeletal appointments increased significantly once the pilot ended.

Flok is also the first technology to be granted medical device clearance under MHRA regulations for fully automating back pain triage, assessment, and treatment. The system provides autonomous assessment and triage instead of diagnosis, using an automated process to determine whether a patient can instantly access physiotherapy appointments or needs to be referred to another service, such as NHS 111 or their GP.

In summary, the AI-run physiotherapy clinic represents a significant advancement in addressing the NHS's challenges. By leveraging AI technology, the clinic aims to reduce waiting times, alleviate the burden on healthcare professionals, and provide faster, personalized care to patients. As this technology continues to evolve, it holds the promise of transforming the landscape of physiotherapy and healthcare at large.


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