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The UK government has announced it’s rerouting £250M (~$300M) in public funds for the country’s National Health Service (NHS) to set up an artificial intelligence lab that will work to expand the use of AI technologies within the service.
The Lab, which will sit within a new NHS unit tasked with overseeing the digitisation of the health and care system (aka: NHSX), will act as an interface for academic and industry experts, including potentially startups, encouraging research and collaboration with NHS entities (and data) — to drive health-related AI innovation and the uptake of AI-driven healthcare within the NHS.
Last fall the then new in post health secretary, Matt Hancock, set out a tech-first vision of future healthcare provision — saying he wanted to transform NHS IT so it can accommodate “healthtech” to support “preventative, predictive and personalised care”.
In a press release announcing the AI lab, the Department of Health and Social Care suggested it would seek to tackle “some of the biggest challenges in health and care, including earlier cancer detection, new dementia treatments and more personalised care”.
Other suggested areas of focus include:
- improving cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests, including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring
- using predictive models to better estimate future needs of beds, drugs, devices or surgeries
- identifying which patients could be more easily treated in the community, reducing the pressure on the NHS and helping patients receive treatment closer to home
- identifying patients most at risk of diseases such as heart disease or dementia, allowing for earlier diagnosis and cheaper, more focused, personalised prevention
- building systems to detect people at risk of post-operative complications, infections or requiring follow-up from clinicians, improving patient safety and reducing readmission rates
- upskilling the NHS workforce so they can use AI systems for day-to-day tasks
- inspecting algorithms already used by the NHS to increase the standards of AI safety, making systems fairer, more robust and ensuring patient confidentiality is protected
- automating routine admin tasks to free up clinicians so more time can be spent with patients
Google-owned UK AI specialist DeepMind has been an early mover in some of these areas — inking a partnership with a London-based NHS trust in 2015 to develop a clinical task management app called Streams that’s been rolled out to a number of NHS hospitals.
UK startup, Babylon Health, is another early mover in AI and app-based healthcare, developing a chatbot-style app for triaging primary care which it sells to the NHS. (Hancock himself is a user.)
In the case of DeepMind, the company also hoped to use the same cache of NHS data it obtained for Streams to develop an AI algorithm for earlier detection of a condition called acute kidney injury (AKI).
However the data-sharing partnership ran into trouble when concerns were raised about the legal basis for reusing patient data to develop AI. And in 2017 the UK’s data watchdog found DeepMind’s partner NHS trust had failed to obtain proper consents for the use of patients’ data.
DeepMind subsequently announced its own AI model for predicting AKI — trained on heavily skewed US patient data. It has also inked some AI research partnerships involving NHS patient data — such as this one with Moorfields Eye Hospital, aiming to build AIs to speed up predictions of degenerative eye conditions.
But an independent panel of reviewers engaged to interrogate DeepMind’s health app business raised early concerns about monopoly risks attached to NHS contracts that lock trusts to using its infrastructure for delivering digital healthcare.
Where healthcare AIs are concerned, representative clinical data is the real goldmine — and it’s the NHS that owns that.
So, provided NHSX properly manages the delivery infrastructure for future digital healthcare — to ensure systems adhere to open standards, and no single platform giant is allowed to lock others out — Hancock’s plan to open up NHS IT to the next wave of health-tech could deliver a transformative and healthy market for AI innovative that benefits startups and patients alike.
Commenting on the launch of NHSX in a statement, Hancock said: “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.
“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. It’s part of our mission to make the NHS the best it can be.
“The experts tell us that because of our NHS and our tech talent, the UK could be the world leader in these advances in healthcare, so I’m determined to give the NHS the chance to be the world leader in saving lives through artificial intelligence and genomics.”
Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England, added: “Carefully targeted AI is now ready for practical application in health services, and the investment announced today is another step in the right direction to help the NHS become a world leader in using these important technologies.
“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.”