National Health Service England to set up Artificial Intelligence lab

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is setting up a national artificial intelligence lab that aims to improve the care of patients and develop research.

The BBC reports that £250 million will be spent on the technology, which could analyze data to better diagnose patients, develop existing knowledge of diseases, and improve how hospitals operate.

A number of clinical trials have shown how artificial intelligence can help doctors detect different types of cancers and eye conditions, which reportedly means doctors can better focus on urgent cases. University College London developed a system that uses machine learning to notify doctors when a patient is likely to miss an appointment and recommends sending them reminders; the system is not perfect, however, as it incorrectly flags about half of patients who attend appointments as being at risk of absence.

Nevertheless, these technologies are only available in selected hospitals and are not yet used nationally.

Quoted in The Guardian, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the NHS is “leading the way in harnessing new technology to treat and prevent, from earlier cancer detection to spotting the deadly signs of dementia.”

“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,” he said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the NHS is “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.”

Hancock previously criticized the NHS for not using developing technologies, saying that supermarket chain Tesco knows more about its customers than the NHS does its patients.

However, an increase in the amount of data gathered could also mean the data is at risk of being mishandled. In 2016, Google’s artificial intelligence company Deepmind (and its subsidiary Deepmind Health), was working with the NHS on a number of projects, including an app called Streams, which would detect kidney failure. The company made a pledge that the healthcare data it was collecting would not be linked to Google accounts or services. In 2018, however, it was reported that its pledge was broken when Deepmind Health was integrated into Google.

Privacy researcher Julia Powles said at the time that “making this about semantics is a sleight of hand. DeepMind said it would never connect Streams with Google. The whole Streams app is now a Google product. That is an atrocious breach of trust, for an already beleaguered product.”

The NHS is also particularly vulnerable to cyberattack; over one million of its computers still use the Windows 7 operating system and, as one of the United Kingdom’s criticial national infractructure it could be targeted by malicious entities—for which the government is drastically underprepared.

Others have said that while the futuristic technology is welcome, there are existing faults in the NHS that need addressing. Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation think tank, said “there remains a £6 billion maintenance backlog for supporting basic infrastructure, including IT equipment, of which over £3 billion is identified as ‘high or significant risk’,” as well as a shortfall of 100,000 workers.

Matthew Honeyman, a researcher at The King’s Fund health think tank, said “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.”