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Government puts £140m NHS AI award in play to speed up advanced tech usage

Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health and social care, has launched a £140m competition for AI healthcare technology providers

Social care secretary Matt Hancock has launched a competition to speed up artificial intelligence (AI) usage in the NHS.

According to a spokesperson at the Department of Health and Social Care, the £140m AI Award fund will be open to multiple companies, and will be allocated based on the applications received.

The competition will run for five weeks and winners will be “selected based on their potential to transform patient care, support staff and save lives”, according to a Department of Health and Social Care statement.

The Accelerated Access Collaborative, which is organised under the authority of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), will run the competition in partnership with NHSX, which Hancock launched in February 2019, to bring together responsibility for policy, implementation and change in digital, data and technology across the health service in England.

The award will form part of the £250m NHS AI Lab announced by prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019.

According to the statement, the award programme will “support the NHS to adopt and test technologies which already have regulatory approval, as well as developing new technologies that support the priorities set out in the Long-Term Plan”.

“If products are successful, they will be rolled out across the NHS and social care, with a particular focus on better integration across the health and care systems,” it said.

The statement highlighted the existing use of AI in the health service to predict cancer survival rates and cut the number of missed appointments. “In the East Midlands, for example, artificial intelligence is improving the speed and dissemination of x-rays and scans for five million people, helping predict breast cancer sooner. Across the wider country AI is used to predict demand for blood across hospitals, ensuring stocks are managed for patients,” it added.

In a speech coinciding with the launch of the award fund, at the Parliament and HealthTech Conference, Hancock said: “This whole agenda is not about technology, it’s about people. The best kind of tech is the technology you barely notice because it just works.

“It’s the tech that gets you away from the screen and lets you make eye contact with the patient in front of you. That’s what we’re aiming for, it’s what clinicians are crying out for, it’s what patients expect and it’s what will bring our NHS into the 21st century.”

Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, said: “Throughout our history the NHS has led the way in designing, developing and introducing cutting-edge technology, and as we futureproof the health service for the 21st century and beyond, artificial intelligence has the potential to transform how we deliver patients’ care.

“From helping to personalise NHS screening and treatments for cancer, eye disease and a range of other conditions, the possibilities that AI could help with are vast and the NHS is already ramping up the use of world-leading technology as part of our Long-Term Plan.”

The announcement mentioned Axial3D, which is “helping to transform surgery by providing 3D-printed models of specific parts of a patient’s own body. Axial3D uses machine learning-based segmentation algorithms to automatically produce patient-specific 3D anatomical models within 24 to 48 hours”.

It also discussed a cloud-based patient management system called eTrauma, used to manage more than 500,000 patients in 15 acute NHS Trusts, as well as Kortical, which has built AI models to predict demand and supply levels of blood products across hospitals.

The departmental statement added, as a caveat, that “any innovator working with the AI lab will need to comply with the laws and regulations that protect health and care data, as well as the NHS’s Code of Conduct for data-driven technologies. This will ensure that AI is developed in a safe, ethical, evidenced and transparent way that puts patient privacy first”.

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