NHS turns to AI to tackle ‘biggest’ healthcare challenges

The UK healthcare organization will explore the vast potential of AI technology to improve the healthcare sector.
13 August 2019

Does advanced healthcare lie with AI technology? Source: Shutterstock

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is to receive a £250 million government injection to spend on artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help tackle “the biggest challenges in health and care”. 

According to the UK government’s health department, the new AI Lab will comprise academics, specialists and technology companies. 

The focus of the initiative will be on how AI can advance healthcare in areas such as cancer detection, new dementia treatments, and more personalized care. 

Health secretary Matt Hancock said that the combination of the UK’s tech talent and the NHS could see the country become a “world leader” in healthcare technology, and provide the healthcare service the chance to become the “world leader in saving lives through artificial intelligence and genomics.”

AI in healthcare 

The life-changing potential of emerging technology in healthcare has long attracted interest and investment from researchers and tech companies alike. Since 2013, healthcare AI startups have raised US$4.5 billion— amounting to more than any other industry. 

The potential applications of AI in healthcare are vast, given the massive amounts of medical data available. Healthcare surveys, patient records, disease registries, and clinical trials are just some of the data sources which could serve as rich data banks for healthcare AI programs. 

For individual cases and diseases alike, AI programs could analyze vast pools of available data in timeframes impossible for humans, discerning trends and patterns which could provide diagnoses, inform treatment plans, predict developments or calculate survival rates. 

AI could also help alleviate the burden on healthcare workforces, helping to prioritize patients for treatment, and handling time-consuming and menial admin processes. 

AI in the NHS

Forming part of NHSX, a new organization that will oversee the digitization of the healthcare system in the UK, these are all areas which the NHS AI Lab will focus on. 

The program aims to improve cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests, including mammograms and brain scans; use predictive models to estimate future needs of beds, drugs, and devices; and automate routine admin tasks to free up clinicians, so more time can be spent with patients. 

Health secretary Matt Hancock said this organization would “harness the true potential of technology to transform care, save lives and free up clinicians’ time and empower patients to take greater control of their own health.”

Not only will the funding benefit the UK’s healthcare system and patients themselves, but it will also be directed at private technology vendors who can provide the AI programs and expertise needed to deploy the technology and explore further use cases. This will contribute to the growth of the UK’s AI industry, especially in the face of Brexit uncertainty

But while the announcement shows confidence in the power of AI in healthcare, it won’t be the first time the NHS will have explored the possibilities. 

According to New Statesman Tech, Dartford and Gravesham NHS Trust (which spans thee hospitals) has already used AI to automate chest x-rays and can know within one minute whether the results are normal or abnormal. If that latter, it can carry out analysis for further categorization. 

The company has also launched remote patient monitoring using health wearables, allowing patients’ blood pressure or diagnostic information to taken and sent in real-time, without the need to make a visit, phone or login. 

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,” said Simon Stevens, NHS England Chief Executive.

Tech for tech’s sake?

However, the announcement has also drawn its fair share of criticism. According to The Register, commentators have said the spending plan lacks any real clarity, while the NHS could benefit from investment spent on other more pressing areas.

Health Foundation’s Adam Steventon told the publication: “Technology needs to be driven by patient need and not just for technology’s sake.

“Robust evaluation, therefore, needs to be at the heart of any drive towards greater use of technology in the NHS, so that technologies that are shown to be effective can be spread further, and patients protected from any potential harm.”