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Government pins hopes on £250m AI centre for faster diagnosis and treatment

BMJ 2019; 366 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l5106 (Published 09 August 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;366:l5106
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. London

Around £250m is to be invested in setting up a new centre for artificial intelligence for the NHS in England that promises to help doctors identify and treat disease more rapidly and effectively.

The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, announced on 8 August plans to invest in a “National Artificial Intelligence Lab,” housed within NHSX, the organisation that oversees the digitisation of the health service.

However, health experts have warned that such technology must be properly evaluated and standards agreed before being adopted widely, to ensure it is effective and doesn’t lead to potential harm, and that NHS staff are fully equipped with the necessary digital skills to make use of it.

The new centre will help develop new treatments for cancer, dementia, and heart disease, said the government, making the NHS a world leader in AI and health research.

Practical uses of this developing technology could be:

  • The ability to improve cancer screening by speeding up results of tests including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans, and heart monitoring

  • Identifying patients most at risk of diseases such as heart disease and dementia, allowing for earlier diagnosis and cheaper, more focused, personalised prevention, and

  • Identifying which patients could be more easily treated in the community.

The centre is designed to bring together the industry’s best academics, specialists, and technology companies.

The government said that AI was already being successfully developed in some hospital trusts, such as Imperial College London, which had used it to predict survival rates among patients with ovarian cancer, and in University College Hospital in London, where it had been used to predict missed appointments and allowed staff to follow up patients with targeted phone calls.

Hancock said, “We are 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.”

Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive, said, “Carefully targeted AI is now ready for practical application in health services, and the investment announced today is another step in the right direction to help the NHS become a world leader in using these important technologies.”

Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said, “The government’s commitment to invest in new technology for the NHS is a positive step towards ensuring that the health service is fit for the digital future.” But he added, “Technology needs to be driven by patient need and not just for technology’s sake. Robust evaluation therefore needs to be at the heart of any drive towards greater use of technology in the NHS, so that technologies shown to be effective can be spread further and patients protected from any potential harm.”

The health think tank the King’s Fund also gave a cautious welcome. Its researcher Matthew Honeyman said, “While technology will never be able to replace the compassion and empathy a person can offer, it could undoubtedly enhance treatment and free up clinicians’ time for patient care.

“Just as important as the money announced today is the health service’s readiness to adopt new technology. Many staff in the NHS currently feel that IT makes their life harder, not easier. Rolling out new technologies like AI will require standards to ensure patient safety, a workforce equipped with digital skills, and an upgrade to outdated basic NHS tech infrastructure.”

Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX said, “Today’s announcement gets the NHS ready for the AI revolution, so that doctors can identify and treat disease faster and more effectively.”

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