Report sets out ‘practical way forward’ for the NHS to harness AI

New report looks at complexities around the use of AI in healthcare, mapping out a series of steps to be taken for new technologies to support service transformation.
By Leontina Postelnicu
11:29 am
Compass pointing towards the future.

The Reform think-tank is urging the NHS to follow a series of practical steps from a new report looking at AI in healthcare in order to ensure the system maximises the potential of this technology to ‘narrow’ some of the gaps in health provision.

Key proposals include the development of a clear procurement framework for AI systems, to be developed by NHS England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), to make sure that ‘complex to use and unintuitive products are not purchased as they could hamper service transformation’, argue the report’s authors, Eleonora Harwick and Kate Laycock.

The research addresses the complexities around data in the NHS, including the quality of information or consistency of collection processes, recommending that NHS England and NICE take into account the ‘user-friendliness of IT systems’ during procurement so that errors in data entry are spotted in real-time.

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“The NHS will also need to get data right to truly harness the potential of AI in healthcare. This means collecting the right type of data in the right format, increasing its quality and securely granting access to it,” the authors argue, putting emphasis on addressing the lack of interoperability.

“If we don’t secure the public trust, then the whole thing will fail,”

At the report’s launch this week, RT Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, said:

“The fact that we still do not connect in many places the GP surgery to the A&E department to the ambulance service, we will not realise the potential of this [AI] if we don’t make the upfront investment in order to ensure that we can then realise the potential of the data, this vast, rich stock of data that is potentially available to us.”

In addition, the research indicates that a list of training data sets available ‘more easily’ should be developed so that companies can use it to design suitable products that could reduce pressure on the health system and improve outcomes for patients.

However, it is recommended that NHS Digital creates a ‘specific framework specifying the conditions to securely access this data’.

At the event, Mr Lamb said:

“For me, the enormous value of this report is that it sort of maps out a very practical way forward, the steps that actually have to be taken, the building blocks for the NHS being able to exploit, in the best possible sense of the word, the extraordinary potential of technology, of algorithms or Artificial Intelligence more generally.”

Rebuilding public trust

Referencing the defunct scheme, Mr Lamb explained that public trust will be key to ensuring the system can reap financial benefits from the opportunities that the use of data sets could bring.

“If we don’t secure the public trust, then the whole thing will fail,” he added.

“If the public decides that the benefits, the financial benefit, is all being realised by others, by perhaps commercial organisations outside this country, again, there will be a loss of trust, so we have to navigate our way through this incredibly carefully,” Mr Lamb said.  

During an evidence session of the Science and Technology Select Committee from last year, former Health and Care Chief Clinical Information Officer Keith McNeil agreed that the NHS has a ‘resource that is unparalleled in the world with this data’.

“We have to get it in a form where it can be used and turned into the knowledge that people can make decisions with,” McNeil added.

Asked whether this data should be free or instead become a ‘potential source of funds’, the former CCIO said:

“In my opinion, it absolutely should not be free. It is an extremely valuable data resource, and we have to figure out commercially how we do that.

“What we are setting up means that that data will stay within the NHS and, if industry or private enterprises want to use it, they partner with the NHS to have acccess either through academia or through an AHSN, an AHSC or whatever. They explicity come into that.

“That way, the NHS, through the trust that the public have in it, is able to make sure that that data is secure, cybersecure, and that the privacy and IG (Information Governance) rules are applied rigidly and robustly.”

Asked about its commercial potential, McNeil added it could be worth ‘billions’.

"In specialist areas AI has great potential for success and there are good examples of this starting to happen in the NHS"

At the Reform event, Mr Lamb emphasised once again that the potential gains that AI could bring will not be realised by ‘standing back and watching as technology takes its course’:

“We have to organise to do that and we have to actually invest to do that and the state of the NHS, as it is at the moment in terms of its digital capability, is a million miles away from where it needs to be if we are to realise the potential of this technology.”

Commenting on the report, Professor Daniel Ray said NHS Digital is encouraging partners to provide feedback on the quality of statistics through the quarterly data quality maturity index.

The director of data explained that any potential AI developments harnessing the power of data have to do so ‘responsibly and within the legal frameworks’, adding:

"In specialist areas AI has great potential for success and there are good examples of this starting to happen in the NHS, but we need to understand and evaluate this to move it forwards.”

BJHC, AI, big data


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