Would you rather be treated by a fallible human or a compassionless robot? We explore people’s views on the NHS at 80 and beyond.

In the 70th 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.

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.  

Changing health and 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.

National conversation

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.

Impact of technology

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:

Use of technology by the NHS

  • 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:

Treatment by a human or robot?

  • 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.

Have your say

With these changes happening fast, we want more people to share their thoughts to help shape the debate.  You can share your views via social media using #NHS100 or by using our website.

Find out more

Explaining why it is important for people to have their say, Neil Tester, Deputy Director of Healthwatch England said:

“It was great to be able to mark all the fantastic work of the NHS with 70th birthday celebrations in the Summer. But with a 10-year plan being drawn up for the health service, and Government plans for social care being developed, now is the time to be thinking about the future not the past.

“At Healthwatch we want to give people a chance to have their say in setting the long-term goals for the country’s hospitals, GPs and care homes. It is our NHS after all, and we need to have these sorts of conversations to establish what we want it to focus on, how it should operate and what role each of us has to play in managing our own health.

“An optimistic future would see new technology delivering early diagnosis, better monitoring of symptoms, and new insights into the personalisation of care. It could take pressure off the health system, and help people be more in charge of their health and care. But people clearly have concerns about how some of these changes will affect them.

“The NHS has learnt the hard way that adopting new ideas and approaches without seeking people’s input ends up in costly delays in implementation, and often results in services that don’t quite meet people’s real life needs. This conversation is a chance for us all to make sure the NHS is on the right track.”


Take a look at the results from our polling with Populus in more detail.