NHS to accelerate roll-out of artificial intelligence

NHS doctors
AI could take on tasks such as examining x-rays.
Photo: Shutterstock

The NHS in England is set to create a national artificial intelligence laboratory to improve care and free up the time of medics so they can spend more time with patients.

The £250m project was announced today by prime minister Boris Johnson, who said that AI would transform care, cut waiting times and improve the detection of diseases by predicting who is most likely to get them. The NHS workforce, said the Department of Health would be “upskilled” so they could use AI systems for day-to-day tasks.

The Department of Health and Social Care described the AI lab as having the potential to not only revolutionise care in terms of diagnosing patients, establishing personalised treatment regimes and provide fresh insights into conditions, but revolutionise how hospitals are run.

Once AI has been fed enough data, including millions of scans, it can detect patterns and accurately predict the development of conditions, spotting an array of disorders. Non-clinical applications include tools to predict which patients are likely to forget appointments with an app developed to automatically phone people up and remind them.

This had the potential to let doctors focus on the most urgent cases and rule out those that do not need treatment.

By investing in the lab, the government hopes to roll out these AI applications across the NHS on a wider basis.

The project, the DoH stated, would also 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.

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 would support the ambitions of the NHS Long Term Plan, said the DoH.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS was “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”.

He told the BBC: “The power of artificial intelligence to improve medicine, to save lives, to improve the way treatments are done, that power is enormous.”

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens described the investment as a step towards helping the NHS become a world leader in using these important technologies. He added: “In the first instance, it should help personalise NHS screening and treatments for cancer, eye disease and a range of other conditions, as well as freeing up staff time, and our new NHS AI Lab will ensure the benefits of NHS data and innovation are fully harnessed for patients in this country.”

But Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation thinktank, said that, while he welcomed the extension of AI in the NHS, underfunding had left it not best placed to implement the technology. He said: “…with a shortfall of 100,000 staff, the NHS will struggle to sustain current services, let alone take advantage of the benefits of new technology”. He added: “Robust evaluation therefore needs to be at the heart of any drive towards greater use of technology in the NHS, so that that technologies that are shown to be effective can be spread further, and patients protected from any potential harm.”

Matthew Honeyman, a researcher at The King’s Fund, echoed Steventon’s concerns, telling Personnel Today: “Just as important as the money announced today is the health service’s readiness to adopt new technology. Many staff in the NHS currently feel that IT makes their life harder, not easier. Rolling out new technologies like AI will require standards to ensure patient safety, a workforce equipped with digital skills, and an upgrade to outdated basic NHS tech infrastructure.”

He added: “Although technology will never be able to replace the compassion and empathy a person can offer, it could undoubtedly enhance treatment and free up clinicians’ time for patient care.”

Robert Bolton, a partner at KPMG’s Global People and Change Centre of Excellence, told Personnel Today the role of HR was very important if organisations such as the NHS were to benefit properly from AI. HR, he said, needed to “redraw the boundaries between what AI does and what doctors and nurses do. It’s fraught and it involves the royal colleges and it’s political. But there are huge upsides.”

Dr Nicola Strickland, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, told Personnel Today: “AI offers a fantastic opportunity in clinical imaging, and has actually already been used for a couple of decades by radiologists using speech recognition software to dictate diagnostic reports. The promise is that AI will help us to do our reporting work faster and more efficiently – which should then free-up radiologists to spend more time with patients explaining scan results and to perform  more hands-on interventional work.

“If AI can successfully recognise normal scan or x-ray findings, then these normal imaging studies can be automatically de-prioritised on radiologists’ worklists, allowing them to concentrate first on those patients who are really sick and urgently need our diagnostic expertise. AI should be able to act as a double-reader – alongside the radiologist – to speed up reporting on screening imaging tests such as mammograms or CT colon scans.

“In the future, we should also be able to link features within patients’ imaging studies with their genomic profiles, helping radiologists and other doctors to predict the risk of patients developing diseases, the prognoses they are likely to have and specifically tailor treatment to suit their peronal genetic make-up.”

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