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NHS to use predictive tech to prevent illnesses

Health secretary Matt Hancock wants to use technology to predict disease and stop people falling ill, with AI and genomics having the ‘potential to change everything’

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock wants to spend more on preventing disease, including on use of digital technology to help people manage their own illnesses.

This is part of a series of measures to revolutionise public health by focusing more on preventative measures, which Hancock said deserves more attention.

Speaking at the Annual Meeting of the International Association of National Public Health Institutes on 5 November 2018, Hancock said everyone knows that “prevention is better than cure”, and that to get the best return on the extra £20.5bn promised to the NHS by prime minister Theresa May, digital technologies are key.

“Using new digital technologies to help people make informed decisions, with more access to primary and community care and with more social prescribing, is all aimed at stopping people from becoming patients in the first place,” he said.

He added that the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and genomics have “the potential to change everything”.

“They promise the potential to unlock our genetic codes and allow us to apply those codes to how we live our lives – to predict who is susceptible to which illnesses, to diagnose those already ill faster, and to develop new tailor-made treatments to bring people back to health,” he said.

“Together, they will transform medicine. We are finally now able to crack that genetic factor of our health.”

In a policy document, setting out what Hancock called a “radical shift in how the NHS sees itself”, the government said technology has a “significant role to play in helping people to live healthier, more independent lives”. 

“Predictive prevention will transform public health by harnessing digital technology and personal data – appropriately safeguarded – to prevent people becoming patients,” the policy paper said.

“The availability of public data, combined with the existing understanding of wider determinants of health, means we can use digital tools to better identify risks and then help the behaviours of people most in need before they become patients.

The government wants health and social care organisations exploring personalised and targeted digital services based on lifestyle and circumstances, which can engage citizens in taking responsibility for their own health.

Other technologies such as virtual or video consultations will also be used, as well as social media and online communities which allow patients to share experiences and advice.  

“The ambition is to prevent people becoming patients – particularly those hardest to reach – through personalised, ongoing dialogue about their health. Having built this engagement, digital and data can be used to promote changes in behaviours to narrow the gap in health inequalities,” the paper said.

Public Health England

As part of the plans, Public Health England (PHE) will be charged with exploring the use of digital technologies, building, evaluating and model predictive prevention at scale.

The aim is to come up with a framework or “a system of agile methods means that projects are tested early, immediately learned from, and implemented at pace”, which is grounded in informed consent and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance, the paper said.   

PHE already runs quite a few data analysis programmes focused around prediction, including bioinformatics, which analyses DNA for surveillance of infectious diseases, as well as modelling and economics, which runs real-time simulations to predict expected disease dynamics.

In October 2018, health secretary Matt Hancock set out his tech vision for the NHS, with a clear focus on open standards and interoperability.  

The vision promised to take a “radical new approach to technology across the system and stop the narrative that it’s too difficult to do it right in health and care”.

This new approach includes improving infrastructure across the board, as the NHS is notorious for having un-interoperable systems that don’t talk to each other, disparate IT both within and across organisations and poor data quality.

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