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NHS AI code launched to set rules of engagement for tech firms

The government says its code of conduct for the use of artificial intelligence and other data technologies in the NHS sets out the data privacy rules of the game for tech firms

The government has officially released a code of conduct for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other data-driven technologies in the NHS.

The code, according to a statement from the Department of Health and Social Care, will encourage technology companies to meet a “gold-standard set of principles to protect patient data to the highest standards”.

It was originally announced by health minister James O’Shaughnessy at an NHS Expo in Manchester on 5 September 2018, and has been in development since then.

The code’s aim is to make it easy for suppliers to develop technologies that tackle healthcare matters, such as dementia, obesity and cancer.

The code is also said to have the aim of making the UK “the best place in the world to invest in healthtech”, and to “make sure the NHS get a fair deal from the commercialisation of its data resources”.

Simon Eccles, chief clinical information officer for health and care at the NHS, said: “Parts of the NHS have already shown the potential impact AI could have in the future of the NHS in reading scans, for example, to enable clinicians to focus on the most difficult cases.

“This new code sets the bar companies will need to meet to bring their products into the NHS so we can ensure patients can benefit from not just the best new technology, but also the safest and most secure.”

At a Westminster Health Forum seminar held in November 2018, Eccles said: “The time is now right [for applying digital technology in the NHS]. Public expectations are different to the time of the National Programme for IT in the NHS [NPfIT].

“We in the NHS are not terribly digital,” he added. “We are doing things the way we have always done them. The model of care is the 1948 model: the GP in the surgery, the community practice and district nurse in the car, the hospital with consultants and junior doctors in white coats. We don’t use AI much in healthcare, and we should.”

The AI code is made up of 10 principles that will govern how technology companies will engage with the health service in respect of AI and data exploitation. According to the statement, it will be “regularly updated in partnership with industry and stakeholders to ensure it keeps pace with the market”.

The NHS AI code of conduct – 10 principles

  1. Understand users, their needs and the context.
  2. Define the outcome and how the technology will contribute to it.
  3. Use data that is in line with appropriate guidelines for the purpose for which it is being used.
  4. Be fair, transparent and accountable about what data is being used.
  5. Make use of open standards.
  6. Be transparent about the limitations of the data used and algorithms deployed.
  7. Show what type of algorithm is being developed or deployed, the ethical examination of how the data is used, how its performance will be validated and how it will be integrated into health and care provisions.
  8. Generate evidence of effectiveness for the intended use and value for money.
  9. Make security integral to the design.
  10. Define the commercial strategy.

According to the statement, AI technology is being used across the NHS to improve the diagnosis of heart disease and lung cancer, to reduce the number of unnecessary operations performed due to false positives, assist research by better matching patients to clinical trials, and support the planning of care for patients with complex needs.

One example given is Moorfields eye hospital, where one million anonymised eye scans were shared with Google’s Deepmind under a research agreement that began in mid-2016. Deepmind’s algorithm is designed to find early signs of age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.

Another is the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, which has been working with a company called Ultromics to use AI to improve detection of heart disease and lung cancer. And another cited is Imperial College London, which has developed an AI system that can predict the survival rates for patients with ovarian cancer.

Matt Hancock, Health and Social Care secretary of state, said: “Artificial intelligence has the potential to save lives, but also brings challenges that must be addressed.

“We need to create an ecosystem of innovation to allow this type of technology to flourish in the NHS and support our incredible workforce to save lives, by equipping clinicians with the tools to provide personalised treatments.

“AI must be used responsibly and our code of conduct sets a gold-standard set of rules to ensure patient data is always protected and the systems we use are some of the safest in the world”.

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