The U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) today announced it will reroute £250 million ($302.86 million) in funds to create a new Artificial Intelligence Lab within a unit tasked with digitizing the country’s health care system. The NHS says the new lab will work to bring together academics, specialists, and tech companies to tackle “some of the biggest challenges in health and care.”
“We are on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform [the] patient experience by making the NHS a truly predictive, preventive, and personalized health and care service,” wrote Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “It’s part of our mission to make the NHS the best it can be. The experts tell us that because of our NHS and our tech talent, the U.K. could be the world leader in these advances in health care, so I’m determined to give the NHS the chance to be the world leader in saving lives through [AI] and genomics.”
The NHS expects the AI Lab’s work to enhance cancer screenings by expediting mammograms, brain scans, eye scans, and heart monitoring and to enable clinicians to better estimate drug, device, and surgical needs on the fly. Moreover, it says the machine learning models it develops might help identify which patients could be more easily treated in the community and identify those most at risk of post-operative complications or infections and of conditions such as heart disease or dementia.
Ultimately, says NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens, the goal is to upskill the NHS workforce so that it is able to tap AI systems to automate routine tasks. Another of the AI Lab’s core missions is to inspect algorithms already in use and “increase standards” of safety, making them fairer and more robust while “ensuring patient confidentiality is protected.”
“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,” said Stevens. “In the first instance, it should help personalize 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.”
The NHS previously partnered with private parties to deploy AI-imbued services, including Babylon Health, which supplies a chatbot-style app for triaging primary care, and Alphabet’s DeepMind, which recently anonymized data collected from NHS patients to develop systems that can diagnose acute kidney injury (AKI) and degenerative eye conditions. The latter collaboration proved to be somewhat controversial: The more than 1.6 million patients whose records were analyzed in the AKI-diagnosing algorithm’s creation weren’t asked for their consent, leading the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to conclude last year that the NHS had breached U.K. law.
By bringing some of the work in-house, the NHS hopes to address those concerns.
“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,” said U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “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.”