Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced £250 million in funding to establish an NHS artificial intelligence lab – marking his third funding pledge to the health service in as many days.
NHS England will receive the multi-million-pound funding, which Johnson says could help revolutionise patient care and medical research.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock praised the potential of deploying AI in the NHS, saying it had “enormous power” to enhance care, save lives and to allow doctors to spend more time with patients.
Due to the NHS’ less than stellar record with technology, health experts have warned that any new system will require “robust evaluation” to avoid it having a negative impact on the healthcare system. If implemented without high safety standards and training, they say it could cause more harm than good.
In addition to these concerns, they have also raised the question of where the money for this will be coming from, with some worrying it may come from cuts in other areas and services that are already feeling the pinch from lack of cash.
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AI is already being used in a number of UK hospitals with some using it to predict cancer survival and to cut the volume of missed appointments. The technology is able to identify patients likely to miss their appointment so that they can be given a reminder phone call ahead of time.
Earlier in the week, Johnson pledged £1.8 billion towards the maintenance and restoration of run-down hospitals; however, this figure falls significantly short of the £6bn that is said to be needed for the task. He also announced an overhaul of complex pension rules for the best-paid doctors, surgeons and nurses to encourage them to stop leaving the NHS and cutting back on extra shifts.
Johnson said the NHS was leading the way in harnessing new technology to treat and prevent, from earlier cancer detection to spotting the deadly signs of dementia.
He added: “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.”
Hancock, an avid supporter of AI who has his own app, said the NHS was “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”.
Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation thinktank, was more measured in his response.
He said: “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.
“Despite the extra capital funding pledged this week, there remains a £6bn maintenance backlog for supporting basic infrastructure, including IT equipment, of which more than £3bn is identified as ‘high or significant risk’.
“And with a shortfall of 100,000 staff, the NHS will struggle to sustain current services, let alone take advantage of the benefits of new technology.”
Matthew Honeyman, a researcher at The King’s Fund health thinktank, said: “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.”