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Matt Hancock announces £50m for healthcare AI projects

The NHS and industry must have a ‘symbiotic’ relationship, says health secretary Matt Hancock as he promises to improve the environment for innovation in healthcare and announces £50m in funding for a series of healthcare AI projects

Health secretary Matt Hancock has promised £50m in funding to drive forward the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning across the NHS.

Speaking during London Tech Week, Hancock said the funding is part of the government’s plans to create an environment which fosters technology innovation in the NHS.

The funding will be awarded to a range of healthcare AI projects, including the University of Liverpool, which is developing AI techniques to predict eye cancer using big longitudinal data; and Project Rhapsody, led by tech company Novoic, which is looking at the clinical feasibility of using AI-based deep audio and language processing to diagnose neurological and psychiatric conditions through analysing speech and language patterns.

As part of the government’s AI in Health and Care Award programme, the funding aims to support research, development and testing of “promising ideas”, which can improve diagnosis and care for patients in the NHS.

The projects will be trialled in several NHS organisations before potentially being adopted across the NHS, and Hancock said the funding “will ensure the NHS can continue to fast-track pioneering artificial intelligence to the frontline, freeing up clinicians’ time and saving lives”.

He added that the government aims to “drive forward the use of AI and machine learning across the NHS”.

Hancock said that NHSX, which he set up last year, aims to be an “open door to help [innovators] navigate through the NHS and help ensure we have that symbiotic engagement between the NHS and those companies who want to come in and find the solutions”.

“NHSX is there to provide that open door, along with funding for those where we think there are exciting prospects,” he said.

He added that there is still a long way to go to improve the environment for innovation and engagement between the NHS and private sector, but that “in the past couple of years, we’ve got much further”.

He also spoke about the importance of data use in the NHS, and the importance of not letting privacy concerns get in the way of using data.

The NHS needs to be interoperable and “have a high quality data architecture that protects privacy while allowing for research, and along the use of data to find insights and then apply them in a clinical setting”.

“We have the biggest and most comprehensive universal health data system in the world in the NHS. We are absolutely rigorous about the needs of privacy, but we mustn’t let that get in the way of innovation that can improve people's lives,” he said.

“We must both allow for innovation on the data and allow for the highest quality of privacy and cyber security, and a high quality data architecture of course improves both. This isn’t an either-or [situation].”

In 2018, the health secretary announced plans to sequence five million genomes by 2023, and roll out genomic testing across the NHS. During his speech, Hancock touched on the importance of genomics and digital records to improve patient care.

“After all, genomics is essentially a data business, because understanding your genome is about making mashable data that can then be used to analyse in order to diagnose and improve research. This combination of clinical data or genomic data, and all the behavioural data that we gather from other parts of our lives, is a huge opportunity,” he said.

“So getting the [NHS] data architecture right, making it interoperable, and ensuring that people can come in and use it, that is critical.”

Another area Hancock deemed “critical” is the need to change the culture in the NHS to see data as an asset, rather than something that “needs to be protected and hidden away”.

“I care about technology and I care about health tech, because I care about people,” he said.

Read more about NHS and technology

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  • Health secretary Matt Hancock has outlined how the NHS will continue to leverage digital technologies with the help of the private sector after the Covid-19 pandemic ends.
  • NHS Digital has been racing to ensure the systems and protocols are in place to prepare the health service for the coronavirus. We speak to its CEO about the preparations.

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