Medical artificial intelligence could save the NHS from a looming shortfall of £20 billion and the demands of an ageing population, with 30 per cent over the age of 60 by 2039.

Healthcare is a numbers game and the figures are running wild. Every indicator shows the creaking NHS cannot cope with rising demand and dwindling resources.

But the relentless gloom over hospital waiting lists, budgetary shortfalls and demographic time bombs is being challenged by a fresh approach that could revolutionise personal and national health.

A new era for healthcare

A wave of innovation driven by artificial intelligence is being hailed as both a saviour of traditional healthcare and the dawn of a new era in the public’s engagement with their own health.

“Healthcare is one of the highest cost areas for all modern economies, which makes it ripe for AI as providers look for efficiency to care for patients,” says Dan Housman, chief technology officer at ConvergeHEALTH by Deloitte.

“Healthcare is complex as an industry and is generating vast volumes of data from imaging, genomics, sensors, daily care and scientific research.

“AI can generate insights from this data that people can’t easily do, so again it makes healthcare a good fit for the technology.”

We all worry about the overstretched NHS’s ability to treat our ailments, but imagine if your body could be monitored like a Formula 1 car with every subtle change analysed for optimum performance. The dream is a reality.

McLaren, the FI team with Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button in the driving seats, has turned its formidable technical skills on healthcare to raise the prospect of future generations being able to respond swiftly to health fluctuations to minimise GP or hospital visits.

McLaren’s race team deals with more than a billion pieces of data from more than 200 sensors on both its cars over a grand prix weekend. Tweaking performance is the difference between a podium or an also-ran finish, and now the same skills and techniques are being used by its Applied Technologies division to improve health outcomes.

It has joined forces with pharmaceutical giant GSK on clinical trials to monitor recovering stroke and motor neurone disease patients by using a discreet patch positioned on the neck to transmit activity readings.

Dr Ali Parsa, the pioneering health guru behind Babylon, the online service that fuses clinical expertise with the latest technology to provide symptom checks and increasingly diagnostics, says: “There is not an area in our lives where AI is not already doing a big job – it is all around us.

“Using AI will free up doctors and nurse time. There are so many combinations that no human brain can compute all of them and that is why one in eight of NHS diagnoses are wrong. It is not that the doctors are bad, it is just that it is mathematically impossible to configure all these in your head.

“Simple stuff will be done much better by machines, but then humans will be able to do the treatment – the surgery, the care – more effectively and with more time for empathy.”

The statistics underscore his point: there are 10,000 known human diseases and the British National Formulary, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s pharmacology reference book, runs to 1,349 pages of detailed information from asthma to zinc adhesive tape.

Investment pouring in

Dr Parsa champions AI for its potency to process a forest of data into clear medical guidance with man and machine working in harmony. The revolutionary gains will come by AI interrogating the deep wells of medical information to devise disease prevention protocols to reduce the burdens from crippling conditions such as obesity, which costs the UK around £10 billion a year.

Investment is pouring into healthcare AI with Babylon securing £17.3 million funding and the Network Locum startup, which matches doctors with temporary vacancies, just announcing it has won £5.3 million in backing from BGF Ventures.

The NHS is certainly keen to take advantage with its chief executive Simon Stevens proclaiming that smartphones are “one of the most powerful diagnostic tools available”. NHS funding is being reformed to allow hospitals and GPs to apply for reimbursement for apps and devices on an approved list.

NHS England’s Small Business Research Initiative awarded £42 million of funds for NHS innovations in 2015 which have the potential to save £1.5 billion.

The honeypot is also attracting the big players Google and IBM. Google’s DeepMind project pledges to build technology tools that will support the NHS so it can continue to be free at the point of use. Its first visible effort is a collaboration with London’s Royal Free Hospital to develop an app for speedier recognition of acute kidney injury, which causes 40,000 deaths a year.

DeepMind is also working with the smartphone app Hark, developed by surgeon and former health minister Lord Darzi, of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, London, which smoothes out communications across busy hospital wards. A pilot at St Mary’s Hospital, London, found that medical staff responded 37 per cent faster when alerted by the app than by pagers.

IBM is continuing to build the capabilities of its Watson system that aims to have the world’s health knowledge at the mercy of its superfast processors. Barely a month goes by without Watson rolling out demonstrations of how its machines outperform humans at virtually anything from playing word games to diagnosing nuanced strains of cancer.

The mechanics are in place, but the public still needs to learn to trust computers and have confidence their records will remain private.

Bleddyn Rees, digital health consultant at Osborne Clarke, also cautions that, although the NHS is data rich, a lot of work needs to be done to collate it into meaningful data sets.


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