IBM Watson health status resurrected with NHS virtual assistant

IBM Banner NHS Press Release

East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust has launched Enquire, a new intelligent virtual assistant powered by IBM Watson Assistant on IBM Cloud, to support its HR team’s ability to handle queries from its 6,500 staff. The partnership comes a year after IBM shed off its Watson Health operation following problems integrating its AI tech with healthcare operations. 

Enquire has been created specifically for East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust to alleviate the administrative workload of HR employees, freeing up their time for more complex, value adding tasks, while providing a 24-7 support service for all staff.

Developed by IBM Expert Labs in collaboration with the Trust and over 15 subject matter experts, Enquire runs on IBM Cloud and is powered by IBM Watson Assistant, using AI to understand customers in context to provide fast and consistent answers across any applications, device or channel.

The assistant won’t be the first IBM Watson touchpoint in the UK’s NHS system; previous collaborations have involved Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and other virtual assistants made during lockdown for both NHS Wales and The Royal Marsden cancer center.

The Enquire project though is different in that it’s one of the first, if not the first, trumpeted applications of IBM Watson tech in UK healthcare since the global shuttering of the Watson Health division in late 2021. Whether this means a semi-resurrection for IBM’s AI health ambitions, only time will tell, but Big Blue certainly has a strong foothold in the NHS, having won a £52.4m ($60.2m) contract for supporting and developing the NHS App in September.

It should be underlined, though, that Enquire is a staff-facing solution, and not a customer one of the sort used in hospital wards and surgeries on which Watson Health staked its reputation on.

Regarding the Enquire launch, Kate Robinson, managing director, IBM Technology, UK and Ireland, said: “The NHS is one of the UK’s most critical institutions and has faced growing pressure in recent years as a result of the pandemic and staff shortages.

“We are proud to have developed this innovative resource in collaboration with East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust to help alleviate pressure on the HR team and enable them to provide an even greater level of support for the hard-working staff of the Trust.”

Thomas Pounds, chief people officer at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, said: “It is really important that our staff have instant access to the information they need at a time that suits them. Enquire has been designed and built to do exactly that.

“It will not only provide 24/7 support to our key frontline staff but means that our HR department can focus on work that provides greater value for the organization. We look forward to making further developments to Enquire based on the needs of our workforce.”