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NHS gets £250m boost for AI and genomics

National Artificial Intelligence Lab will work on new treatments for cancer, dementia and heart disease

The UK government has announced a £250m funding package towards a new plan to elevate the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and genomic medicine.

Announcing the funding – which is on top of the £1.8bn of new NHS money announced this week – health secretary Matt Hancock said the cash would go towards the creation of a National Artificial Intelligence Lab.

The lab will bring academics, specialists and technology companies together to build on existing AI projects across NHS hospitals and harness innovations to treat and prevent conditions ranging from earlier cancer detection to spotting the initial signs of dementia (see box below).

“We are on the cusp of a huge healthtech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly predictive, preventive and personalised health and care service,” said Hancock.

“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.”

Hancock added: “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 am determined to give the NHS the chance to be the world leader in saving lives through artificial intelligence and genomics.”

According to prime minister Boris Johnson, the new cash goes beyond building the future of care and will “boost the frontline” with task automation.

“My task to ensure the NHS has the funding it needs to make a real difference to the lives of staff and patients,” said Johnson. “Transforming care through artificial intelligence is a perfect illustration of that.”

The new AI lab will sit within the health service’s digital unit, NHSX, and work in partnership with the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC), which was recently revamped with a new focus of identifying the best in healthtech, aligning policy and establishing testing mechanisms.

Projects that could be carried out at the AI lab

  • Improvement of cancer screening with faster test results, including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring.
  • Use of predictive models to better estimate future needs of beds, drugs, devices or surgeries.
  • Identification of patients who can be easily treated or are most at risk of diseases such as heart disease or dementia, allowing for earlier diagnosis, with cheaper and “personalised” prevention.
  • Detection of people at risk of post-operative complications and infections or requiring a follow-up from clinicians to improve patient safety and reduce readmissions.
  • Inspection of algorithms already used by the NHS to increase the standards of AI safety, ethics and data security.
  • Upskilling the NHS workforce to use AI systems for day-to-day tasks.
  • Automation of routine admin clinician tasks.

The lab’s initial aim will be to help personalise NHS screening and treatments for cancer, eye disease and a range of other conditions, as well as freeing up NHS staff time.

The launch of the AI lab follows the publication of a green paper by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) in July 2019, which outlined the government’s intentions to accelerate projects underpinned by AI around prevention and detection of conditions at an early stage, while enabling more self-care.

“In the 2020s, people will not be passive recipients of care,” the document said. “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.”

But according to Tim Ensor, director of artificial intelligence at Cambridge Consultants, although the NHS could be positioned to become a world leader in AI development, the health service should not spend all the new funding on developing its own AI algorithms.

“There are many companies and institutions in the UK with proven capability to develop AI algorithms supporting new healthcare services,” said Ensor. “The key component, which only the NHS can provide, is well managed access to patient and hospital operations data.”

Ensor said the new cash should go towards enabling the NHS to provide equal access to its data for “all credible UK-based researchers”. It should also ensure that ethical, unbiased and high-quality services are developed based on this data, he added.

“The funding should be focused on developing the capability to roll out the best AI applications across the entire NHS, in order to achieve the true benefits of its scale, for both patients and practitioners,” he said. 

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