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UK government to boost AI and data use in preventive healthcare

A programme led by Public Health England and NHSX will aim to usher in a “new era of evidence-based self-care", with patients increasingly expected to allow access to their personal data

The UK government is launching a programme that will see technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and increased expectations of personal data shared by patients for the purposes of preventive healthcare.

According to a green paper published by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), the government is looking to accelerate projects around prevention and detection of conditions at an early stage, while enabling a greater degree of self-care.

To support that goal, Public Health England (PHE) will start working with digital  delivery unit for the healthcare system, NHSX, to build a portfolio of innovations that will support the evaluation and modelling of predictive prevention projects at scale.

“In the 2020s, people will not be passive recipients of care. They will be co-creators of their own health. The challenge is to equip them with the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to help themselves,” the document stated.

“Health is a shared responsibility and only by working together can we achieve our vision of healthier and happier lives for everyone,” it added.

The initial phase of the programme led by PHE and NHSX will see collaborative work between the public health system, academia and private and voluntary sectors to “get foundations right” in terms of building public trust about use of data in healthcare.

Data held by the NHS, coupled with data generated by individuals’ smart devices, is expected to “usher in a new wave of intelligent public health”, with individuals being able to access their own health information more easily, leading to a personalisation of interventions.

“We are entering a new era of evidence-based self-care, driven by us as patients in partnership with the NHS,” the document stated.

PHE and the NHS use data and insights to create algorithms and models, the document noted, and the public can choose to have a role in this by either allowing their phones and devices to send data, or government bodies to access their anonymised clinical data. 

According to the DHSC and the Cabinet Office, there is some evidence that targeted marketing campaigns by public health bodies to suggest that citizens are willing to provide contact information to receive health information the government finds it is relevant to their condition.

PHE has received 7.1 million responses to this type of offer, the document highlighted, adding that the UK Biobank has so far built a record of the data of over half a million UK volunteers.

Research funded by healthtech operator Sensing Health suggested that the majority of UK citizens polled (76%) support use of anonymised NHS patient data to enhance diagnosis, research and care. But most citizens don’t trust companies to use their health information, even if it’s  anonymised .

The government is aware of the ethical implications of using healthcare data, the document stated, noting that PHE and NHSX will work with the public, privacy organisations and other bodies, including the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, to understand what would be an acceptable use of patient data.

A main objective of that cross-departmental collaboration, according to the document, is to also explore the development of “models of dynamic, informed consent”,  to enable individuals to choose how and when they want to share their personal information for the purposes of personalised predictive healthcare services.

Use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is seen by government not only as a way to provide better services to patients, but also as a means to reduce pressure on resources across the NHS, with plans in the horizon to reward  organisations  for investing in those tools.

The programme around predictive prevention led by PHE and NHSX will also seek to refine the government’s approach to data analysis and insight generation around healthcare, so that needs of at-risk and vulnerable groups can be properly understood and supported.

A future vision geared at building scale, as well as proofs of concept of personalised prevention to establish the evidence base  are also part of the main goals of the initial phase of the initiative.

The government also anticipates genetic testing to be widely incorporated into screening and diagnostics. Examples cited include use of sequencing to confirm cases of cystic fibrosis in children, or screening for genes associated with Lynch syndrome, which leads to an increased risk of bowel cancer.

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