NHSX, the new unit for digital, data and technology, and the Accelerated Access Collaborative, the umbrella organisation for UK health innovation, are setting up a national AI lab in what is seen as the latest effort to move the NHS into the digital age.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock unveiled the plans this week, with the new lab set to be supported by a £250m fund – although the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the money would not begin to be spent until 2021.
The initiative could lead to improvements in cancer screening, while also helping to identify patients most at risk of diseases, allowing for earlier diagnosis and personalised prevention, as well as automating routine tasks and upskilling staff.
It will bring together academics, specialists and technology companies, and NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould said the focus would be on “practical AI tools that will make a real difference to patients”.
WHY IT MATTERS
With ten times more money being spent on treating rather than preventing disease, a statistic mentioned by Hancock last year, Matthew Honeyman, researcher at think tank The King’s Fund, said the announcement offered the NHS a “welcome boost in its ability to develop” technologies such as AI. But he also cautioned:
“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like AI will require standards to ensure patient safety, a workforce equipped with digital skills, and an upgrade to outdated basic NHS tech infrastructure.”
Since being appointed to the health and social care secretary role last year, Hancock has pledged on a number of occasions to improve the use of IT in the NHS. In one of the most notable moves, he announced the launch of NHSX earlier this year, as concerns around the lack of interoperability, the use of outdated gadgets and paper still shuffled around departments continue to plague the system.
On Twitter, NHSX said that while there was a need to “fix the basics too”, this was not a “either/or” situation: “Staying ahead of where the tech is going is good for the NHS. One reason why the NHS struggles with interoperability now is that we failed to futureproof our technology in the past.”
It also cautioned that data ethics would be embedded into the work done by the lab, and that they would work with experts - including from the Open Data Institute and the Centre for Data Ethics for Innovation – who have “thought deeply about what it means to use data-driven systems in a fair, respectful, transparent and accountable way”.
THE LARGER TREND
In the US, in June, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the largest integrated health delivery network in New York, revealed that it planned to create a centre for research, development and implementation of AI in healthcare. A few months earlier, the Cleveland Clinic announced the launch of a centre for clinical AI, set up by Cleveland Clinic Enterprise Analytics.
ON THE RECORD
Dr Charles Alessi, HIMSS chief clinical officer, told MobiHealthNews it was “encouraging” that the NHS was investing in AI.
“The future of health and care in the 21st century is based on a more personalised service where care can be tailored to the individual. AI is one of the major mechanisms to deliver this at scale and deployment of AI in this space will take the NHS to where it needs to be as the place which better understands their needs,” he added.
In a statement, Hancock said:
“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.”