This startup wants to solve the social care crisis with AI

The social care crisis – as demonstrated with the Conservative Party’s disastrous manifesto pledge – is one of the biggest issues facing the NHS. Spending squeezes have led to bed-blocking in hospitals; while low wages and poor working conditions are causing carers to leave the industry in droves.

One social care startup thinks that a solution might lie in AI. Cera, founded by Ben Maruthappu, a former innovation adviser to NHS England, is a startup that wants to provide smarter social care using an Uber-style platform to match carers and patients. The startup has to date raised £2.7 million in early funding, and in March signed a partnership with Barts Health NHS Trust, as well as several clinical commissioning groups and hospitals in London to test its solution.

Now the startup is revealing an unusual step: it’s launching an AI assistant. Called Martha, the assistant was created by fellow London-based startup Bloomsbury AI, and is designed answer questions from patients and carers during visits. “AI can be even more impactful with the elderly than with the young and healthy,” Maruthappu tells WIRED. The chat bot will be available online and also by text message – a design choice made to target its elderly users. “If you’ve had dementia, or a stroke, you don’t necessarily use a smartphone,” says Maruthappu.

Martha’s capabilities are somewhat underwhelming right now – AI chatbots are becoming virtually ubiquitous – but Maruthappu says it’s just the start. In the near future, the company says, it hopes to use the AI to parse patients’ digital records, and provide health alerts to patients or carers based on that data. For example: noting unusual symptoms or behaviours that might indicate pneumonia, which can be fatal amongst elderly patients.

“Information tracked longitudinally can be extremely useful [in care],” says Maruthappu. “It can predict when these people are going to be unwell.” In addition, he hopes the system will be able to answer common questions or complaints that otherwise might require GP or hospital attention, reducing demand on the system.

“Our algorithms learn to answer more and more questions over time, and our system integrates seamlessly with Cera’s existing communication channels,” said Bloomsbury AI CEO Guillaume Bouchard in a statement. “This happens by reading Cera’s comprehensive documents, which are continuously updated as they grow their services and by asking questions to Cera’s experts when the answer is not obvious.”

Artificial intelligence is booming in healthcare right now: from DeepMind’s efforts to enhance nurses’ work flows, to AIs reading CT scans, to drug discovery. And the combination of an underserved aging population – with a fair amount of accured wealth – has led to a recent flowering of startups in the sector: notably, the US-based startup Honor has raised more than $60million; Berlin-based Careship has also raised $4million; while in London, Vida are also seeking to disrupt the sector.