NHS to invest £250m in artificial intelligence

Author: Mark Gould

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The NHS in England is to invest £250m in artificial intelligence (AI), which will include the establishment of a national AI laboratory to enhance patient care and research.

The health secretary Matt Hancock, an AI enthusiast who has his own eponymous app, said the NHS was “on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly predictive, preventive and personalised health and care service”.

He told BBC News: "The power of artificial intelligence to improve medicine, to save lives, to improve the way treatments are done, that power is enormous. In this country, we've got the opportunity to be one of the leading countries in the world at using this new technology."

AI has the potential to unlock fresh insights into diseases. It has been used to identify a new way of diagnosing atrial fibrillation, a common condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly. And medical imaging, where AI can be trained on thousands of scans, has been in the forefront of innovation.

Clinical trials have proven AI is as good as experienced doctors at spotting lung cancer, skin cancer, and more than 50 eye conditions from scans. This has the potential to let doctors focus on the most urgent cases and rule out those that do not need treatment.

Other tools have been developed that can predict ovarian cancer survival rates and help choose which treatment should be given. And University College London has developed an AI that flags up which patients are more likely to miss an appointment and could be targeted with reminder phone calls.

"I want the NHS, through its AI lab, to actually be searching itself for new insights that are going to save lives," Mr Hancock added.

However, health experts warned that the NHS had a poor record with technology and any new systems would need “robust evaluation” to ensure they did more good than harm as well as proper implementation with safety standards, data protection, and training. They also raised concerns over where the money was coming from and whether it was the result of trade-offs elsewhere in the cash-strapped health service.

The NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens, said “carefully-targeted” AI is ready for practical application in the health service and that the investment “is another step in the right direction”.

He added: “In the first instance, it should help personalise NHS screening and treatments for cancer, eye disease and a range of other conditions, as well as freeing up staff time, and our new NHS AI Lab will ensure the benefits of NHS data and innovation are fully harnessed for patients in this country.”

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