The Prime Minister, Health Secretary, NHS CEO and NHSX CEO came out in force last week to announce a £250m fund to ‘boost artificial intelligence to solve some of the biggest challenges facing the NHS’.
In case you missed it, the press release stated that:
“The lab… will bring together the industry’s best academics, specialists and technology companies to harness the power of AI to improve the health and lives of patients.
The investment will support the ambitions in the NHS Long Term Plan, which includes pledges to use AI to help clinicians eliminate variations in care.
Today’s announcement reaffirms the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring money committed to the NHS reaches the frontline.
It comes in addition to £1.8bn of new money for 20 hospital upgrades and infrastructure projects, as well as proposals to fix issues with doctor’s pensions so clinicians can take on extra shifts and cut waiting times.”
techUK’s CEO Julian David was quoted in the press release, stating that:
“Now is the time for bold action to grasp the opportunities that AI offers in preventing illness, speeding up diagnosis and reducing costs for the NHS.
“techUK has been working closely with NHSX since its inception with the goal of making the UK the destination of choice for healthtech innovators.
“The NHSX AI Lab is a significant investment and provides a great opportunity to bring together the world’s best health tech companies, clinicians and researchers to help the NHS to prove and spread solutions at pace.
“We look forward to continuing our work with NHSX and our members, to ensure that the lab makes use of the best health technology in the world.”
A multi-million pound boost that will undoubtedly improve health and spur highly skilled jobs. ‘What’s not to like?’ you may ask. However, criticism was forthcoming in a familiar guise. A GP from Hampshire was quoted in The Register stating that:
“This sounds like just another sound bite. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock is obsessed by technology… the NHS is desperate for doctors and nurses; social care is in crisis and the four-hour wait is reaching record levels of noncompliance."
And even amongst the technology community, we often hear initiatives in AI and genomics characterised as ‘shiny tech’, when clinicians and patients are struggling to perform even basic tasks through digital means.
Indeed, techUK’s own ‘Manifesto for Matt’ urged the Health Secretary to focus on getting the basics right, supporting NHS trusts to implement fast and secure single sign-on, reliable WiFi, secure peer-to-peer communication tools and sufficient mobile devices.
However, the notion that the NHS is funding ‘shiny tech’ at the expense of doctors and nurses presents a false dichotomy that bears little resemblance to the choices facing Government.
There is next to no public or political appetite for anything other than a publicly funded NHS with adequate resources to do the job. Like health systems around the world, the NHS is facing a multitude of pressures and debates about how much funding is enough are unlikely to subside anytime soon.
But it is incontestable that the NHS – and the Government more broadly – cannot afford to ignore the opportunities afforded by some of the ‘shinier’ technology. There are vast productivity gains to be made by rolling-out artificial intelligence, particularly by automating some of the administrative or ‘back office’ tasks in such a large organisation as the NHS. There isn’t a sizeable business in the country that isn’t investing in AI, because it makes simple financial sense. We should not be shocked that Europe’s biggest employer is following suit.
Of course, the utility of AI is not restricted to efficiency-savings. AI can save lives as well as time. The focus on diagnostics in last week’s announcement is a welcome one, with evidence-based use cases proliferating at great speed.
And it is not just in NHS offices and hospitals that AI can help. Roman Hovorka’s research at Cambridge University has shown that patients can use an algorithm-based ‘artificial pancreas’ to achieve better glucose control. As well as improving lives, this type of technology would hugely reduce pressure on NHS resources if rolled out on a wider scale.
The £250m investment from the Government will help the NHS to assess which of the many uses of AI has the most utility for the NHS, and to roll them out across the system. It is vital that the Government funds these long-term projects – just as it is vital that there are enough doctors and nurses to meet current demand. Presenting this as an ‘either-or’ choice isn’t helpful.
The UK bowed out of industries like coal and steel and we produce less cars now than we did in the 1970s. We can mourn the loss of these industries or celebrate the UK’s move to areas that have a rosier long-term growth outlook.
As we re-evaluate our role in the global economy the UK needs to ask serious questions about the scope and scale of its ambitions. A sizeable investment in data-led technologies (a growth industry) and their utility in health (where worldwide demand is growing rapidly) could be one of the best bets this Government makes.