The government has announced that £250 million investment in artificial intelligence to “improve the health and lives of patients” within the National Health Service (NHS).

The announcement, from the UK Department of Health and Social Care, said that the new National Artificial Intelligence Lab will “bring together the industry’s best academics, specialists and technology companies to work on some of the biggest challenges in health and care, including earlier cancer detection, new dementia treatments and more personalised care.”

The idea that AI could help in healthcare is not new. Back in 2017, British startup Babylon Health said it was looking to create the perfect doctor through the use of machine learning.

AI and the NHS

The AI Lab for the NHS comes after AI is already being developed in some hospitals, where it has apparently successfully predicted cancer survival rates and cut the number of missed appointments.

So how would AI actually work in healthcare roles?

Well it is envisaged for example that the AI Lab’s work could improve cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests, including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring.

It could also use predictive models to better estimate future needs of beds, drugs, devices or surgeries; identify which patients could be more easily treated in the community; identify patients most at risk of diseases such as heart disease or dementia; and it could be used to build systems to detect people at risk of post-operative complications, infections or requiring follow-up from clinicians.

Other areas it could help in would be upskilling the NHS workforce so they can use AI systems for day-to-day tasks; inspect algorithms already used by the NHS to increase the standards of AI safety; and automate routine admin tasks to free up clinicians so more time can be spent with patients.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the AI 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.

“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,” said Matt Hancock.

“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,” said Hancock.

“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,” he added.

Better screening

And the development was also welcomed by the new Prime Minister Boris Johnston.

“The NHS is revered for the world-class care it provides every day – a treasured institution that showcases the very best of Britain,” the PM said. “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,” he said. “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.”

Meanwhile the man in charge of NHS England said the move was a step in the right direction.

“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,” said Simon Stevens, NHS England chief executive.

Last month the NHS revealed it was teaming up with e-commerce giant Amazon to provide health information via its Alexa personal assistant to UK residents.

It will see Alexa answer questions such as “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?” or “Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”. It will source the answers from the NHS website.

Quiz: What do you know about public sector IT?

Tom Jowitt @TJowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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