AI-powered WhatsApp messaging cleared for NHS pilot

Asa WhatsApp AI

An artificial intelligence-driven WhatsApp messaging platform for scheduling cervical cancer screening appointments is being piloted in London to see if it can improve take-up rates.

The pilot of the Asa AI assistant – cleared by the NHS North Central London Integrated Care Board (ICB) – will take place at the Islington GP Federation in London.

The use of cervical cancer screening services is particularly low in some London communities with underserved population groups, sometimes lower than 10%, and the hope is that the AI assistant will lift uptake and streamline the appointment management process for both patients and healthcare workers.

It allows patients to book, reschedule, and cancel appointments via WhatsApp at any time – without requiring any dedicated app or use of a website – and patients can interact with Asa as they would with a human receptionist, according to the ICB.

It uses generative AI (genAI) and behavioural science to tailor language and messaging to different patient groups - for example, sending voice messages in patients’ recorded language to improve uptake in those with a low command of English - and can also provide reassurance and non-medical support and advice.

Asa was developed by digital health company SPRYT in partnership with AI tools developer and UIB, which helped with the WhatsApp integration. According to the company, it uses AI to predict which patients are likely to miss their appointments, andd which should reduce the organisational pressures on staff.

“Our aim is to make appointment booking simple for patients, while also increasing attendance at preventative healthcare appointments,” said Daragh Donohoe, chief executive of London-based SPRYT.

“WhatsApp is the communication tool of choice for a large part of the population – not only does it improve convenience for patients, but it also significantly reduces the burden on primary care teams.”

The pilot comes as NHS England is trying to bring down a 7.6 million-strong waiting list for elective procedures, which is being exacerbated by a no-show rate of one in 20 hospital appointments.

The cost of missed appointments across the whole country is about £1.2 billion, according to the NHS. Earlier this year, another AI receptionist platform developed by Deep Medical aimed specifically at tackling missed appointments started rolling out to 10 NHS trusts across England after a pilot in Essex found it reduced ‘did not attends’ (DNAs) by around a third.

Dr Bengi Beyzade, clinical lead for ENT & Digital at Islington GP Federation and a GP partner at Clerkenwell Medical Practice, said that the Asa system will be overseen by a lead nurse and admin team, who will monitor its activity and can step in at any time.

“We hope this exciting pilot will improve access to cervical smear appointments,” he said, adding that the assistant will also reduce demands on the practice phone lines, which should help to free up capacity for other patients.