Betting on machines to help the cash-strapped organization

by Max Smolaks 8 August 2019

The UK government is planning to spend £250 million ($303m) on artificial intelligence initiatives within the National Health Service (NHS).  

As part of the package, the government will open a taxpayer-funded AI Lab that will bring together industry and academia to collaborate on projects around early cancer detection, new dementia treatments and personalized healthcare.

The lab will become part of NHSX, the new government unit driving forward the digital transformation of health and social care in the UK, established in February.

“The NHS is revered for the world-class care it provides every day – a treasured institution that showcases the very best of Britain,” said the newly-appointed prime minister Boris Johnson. “Today’s funding is not just about the future of care though. It will also boost the frontline by automating admin tasks and freeing up staff to care for patients.

“My task is to ensure the NHS has the funding it needs to make a real difference to the lives of staff and patients. Transforming care through artificial intelligence is a perfect illustration of that.”

A statement from the Department of Health and Social Care outlines some of the lab’s potential: it could help speed up cancer tests, with algorithms streamlining analysis of mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring; estimate future requirements for hospital resources like beds or drugs; improve identification of patients at risk of heart disease or dementia, and identify patients who can safely avoid hospital care altogether.

The announcement comes at a time when the NHS – originally established by Clement Attlee’s government in 1948 as one of the major social reforms following the Second World War – is coming under significant strain over the lack of funding.

Public spending on healthcare in the UK increased substantially over the history of the NHS, reaching £150 billion per year, but it has been growing at a historically low rate since 2010, according to The Health Foundation [PDF].

The UK’s health secretary Matt Hancock is well known for his attempts to solve the funding crisis through technology.

“Because I care about patients getting the best treatment, I care about the NHS getting the best technology,” Hancock said at the launch of NHSX in February. “But everyone knows how hard it’s been to get the NHS to adopt the best in digital.”

Reality check

Not everyone believes the sudden windfall will automatically make the embattled health service a world leader in artificial intelligence: “This announcement is a great sign for the UK healthcare industry, where AI has the potential to dramatically improve service delivery for patients and clinical efficiency,  as well as diagnostic processes in areas like radiology and pathology,” said Rob Dalgety, industry specialist at AI firm Peltarion.

“However, it’s important to remember that just because the funding is allocated, it doesn’t mean that AI is ready to be implemented and put into service.

“There are several issues standing in the way of progress, including important ethical considerations, model transparency and explainability, an up-to-date regulatory framework which can appropriately balance AI benefit and risks, the ability to manage patient data without sacrificing safety and privacy, and significant technical, process and change challenges when deploying any new techniques into the health sector.

“We should be clear that we are only at the very beginning of this development, and we must be careful to consider how these AI barriers can be overcome before deployment.”