The Government has announced the launch of a new National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab which will harness the power of AI to improve health and wellbeing.
The lab, part of a £250m funding pledge, will bring together the industry’s best academics, specialists, and technology companies to work on some of the biggest challenges facing health and care.
AI is already being developed in some hospitals, successfully predicting cancer survival rates and cutting the number of missed appointments.
But the lab will further this would with the aim of improving cancer screening by speeding up test results, including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring; and using predictive models to better estimate future needs for beds, drugs, devices or surgery.
We are on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly-predictive, preventive, and personalised health and care service
It will also help to identify which patients could be more easily treated in the community, reducing the pressure on the NHS and helping patients to receive treatment closer to home.
And it will identify those patients most at risk of diseases such as heart disease or dementia, allowing for earlier diagnosis and cheaper, more-focused, personalised prevention; as well as building systems to detect people at risk of post-operative complications, infections or requiring follow-up from clinicians, reducing hospital readmission rates.
As part of its work it will upskill the NHS workforce so they can use AI systems for day-to-day tasks; and will inspect algorithms already used by the NHS to increase the standards of AI safety, making systems fairer, more robust, and ensuring patient confidentiality is protected.
Furthermore, it will lead the efforts to automate routine admin tasks to free up clinicians so more time can be spent with patients.
The lab will sit within NHSX, the new organisation that will oversee the digitisation of the health and care system, in partnership with the Accelerated Access Collaborative.
The investment will support the ambitions in the NHS Long-Term Plan, which includes pledges to use AI to help clinicians eliminate variations in care.
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said: “The NHS is revered for the world-class care it provides every day – a treasured institution that showcases the very best of Britain.
“But it is also leading the way in harnessing new technology to treat and prevent, from earlier cancer detection to spotting the deadly signs of dementia.
“Today’s funding is not just about the future of care, though. It will also boost the frontline by automating admin tasks and freeing up staff to care for patients.
“My task is to ensure the NHS has the funding it needs to make a real difference to the lives of staff and patients.
“Transforming care through artificial intelligence is a perfect illustration of that.”
Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, added: “We are on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly-predictive, preventive, and personalised health and care service.
A turning point
“I am determined to bring the benefits of technology to patients and staff, so the impact of our NHS Long Term Plan and this immediate, multimillion pound cash injection are felt by all.”
The NHS doesn’t have the luxury of adopting this technology simply for hype, and approaching AI and automation in a piecemeal fashion won’t solve any problems
The announcement has been broadly welcomed by technology companies.
Speaking to BBH , John Gikopolous, global head of AI and automation at Infosys Consulting, said: “As AI and automation are becoming more prevalent in healthcare, this move by the NHS marks the turning point.
“Sooner, rather than later, millions of patients with any condition will be supported by AI technologies, either as part of diagnostics, treatment, or administration.
“While this may be invisible to the patients themselves, healthcare providers, from GPs to hospitals, will reap the benefits of greater efficiencies, both in terms of costs and staff productivity.
To make the most of the opportunities these technologies bring, the NHS must build AI into its entire strategy and ensure that patient care is at the centre of its investment
“AI will also give much-better insights into health conditions and treatments.”
But, he warned, AI should not be seen as a ‘silver bullet’.
“From the outset, hospitals, trusts and surgeries need to have a vision and strategy in place,” he added.
“A common misconception is that artificial intelligence is seen as a ‘nice-to-have’, a sticking plaster to existing challenges an organisation faces.
“But the NHS doesn’t have the luxury of adopting this technology simply for hype, and approaching AI and automation in a piecemeal fashion won’t solve any problems.
“To make the most of the opportunities these technologies bring, the NHS must build AI into its entire strategy and ensure that patient care is at the centre of its investment.”
The NHS needs people with the authority to drive AI applications into clinical settings where they are accepted, where they can make a difference to patient outcomes and working lives, and where they can meet organisational, regional and national needs
Justin Hall, vice president and general manager at iRhythm, a digital specialist in ambulatory cardiac monitoring, adds: “We champion the NHS’s investment in artificial intelligence to enhance patient care, with the disruptive technology able to deliver significantly-improved outcomes for patients and health organisations alike.
“Today, intelligent tech can help doctors to monitor for many different kinds of conditions - such as irregular heart rhythms - and diagnose conditions such as arrhythmia; all without the requirement for traditional Holter monitors – which have proven to be clunky and uncomfortable for patients.
irhythm's Justin Hall welcomed the investment, which will see increased use of innovations such as its cardiac monitoring device
“Enabled by a deep-learning algorithm, such tech can reduce numbers of patient appointments, improve detection and diagnoses, and enable patients to maintain their normal day-to-day lives while monitoring for heart conditions – underlining why the NHS is investing more in this space.”
And Chris Scarisbrick at NHS diagnostic technology provider, Sectra, warned that the NHS would need to recruit specialists in order to gain the most from the investment. He said: “The Government’s £250m pledge has the potential to be great news in enhancing the ability to diagnose serious illnesses.
“Though it certainly cannot replace radiologists and other NHS diagnostic professionals; AI can have a big impact on helping the health service’s increasingly-pressured diagnostic services.
“But, while new money in this arena is good, AI will only work if we have the right leadership.
“Other industries are already recruiting chief AI officers. Now is the perfect opportunity for NHS organisations to do the same – or to go one step further and create the role of chief clinical AI officers.
It's important that the NHS stays at the forefront of AI technology, but it would be better for the public purse to investigate and use the standout tried-and-tested AI technology developed by the private sector
“The NHS needs people with the authority to drive AI applications into clinical settings where they are accepted, where they can make a difference to patient outcomes and working lives, and where they can meet organisational, regional and national needs.”
But the investment was questioned by Barley Laing, UK managing director at Melissa, a company that marries data quality with AI to help drive discovery and efficiency in the healthcare.
He said: “While it’s good to see the Government recognising the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare, does £250m need to be spent on an AI laboratory when the private sector is already leading the way in this space? Particularly when the Government has a mixed track record in these major projects, which are often not well managed and can experience significant budget overspend.
“Great strides are being made by the private sector in revolutionising AI in the healthcare sector. This includes the development of semantic technology which creates links and context within patient data to unlock hidden insight in real-time.
“It makes machine reasoning possible so that health professionals can quickly identify possible risk for patients and intervene with preventative measures at an early stage, improving patient outcomes and saving lives, as well as improving efficiency.
“It's important that the NHS stays at the forefront of AI technology, but it would be better for the public purse to investigate and use the standout tried-and-tested AI technology developed by the private sector.
“This way the benefits to patients, as well as cost savings and efficiencies to the NHS, can be realised sooner.”