NHS adopts predictive AI tech from controversial startup

The technology warns hospitals about a potential spike in patient numbers so they can allocate the right resources when needed

The NHS has partnered with AI startup Faculty to improve its forecasting and predictive capabilities to improve patient care.

The new partnership, which saw Faculty appointed as a partner following a tender process, will reportedly help the NHS to build on its success using AI so far and address new areas where AI forecasting tools can improve service delivery and patient care, such as understanding and predicting A&E demand and winter pressures.

Faculty has been working with the NHS during the COVID-19 pandemic and developed the Early Warning System (EWS). This AI tool is purportedly based on Bayesian hierarchical modelling, using aggregate data to warn hospitals about potential spikes in cases so they can divert staff, beds and vital equipment to where it’s needed.

Currently, there are around 1,000 users of the forecasts across the NHS, who use the outputs for their own analysis or to help inform the prioritisation of safe care delivery for patients on a daily basis, according to Faculty.

“The response to the pandemic has demonstrated the importance and impact of using data and machine learning techniques to make predictions about the future and inform more effective decision-making, wrote the company.

“The techniques applied in the EWS allow forecasts to use specific information from that trust, as well as incorporating a broader set of contextual information that impacts the forecast, such as what’s happening in COVID-19 admissions in other local hospital trusts.”

Faculty has faced controversy in the past when it comes to government contracts. Last year, the startup, which had worked on the Vote Leave campaign, won a contract to analyse social media data, utility bills and credit score ratings, according to the Guardian. However, the full details were unknown as the published version of the contract was partly redacted.

After facing pressure from Open Democracy and Foxglove in June last year, the UK government released contracts governing its deals with a number of companies including Faculty. It emerged the Dominic Cummings-linked firm was being paid over £1 million to provide AI services for the NHS, with Open Democracy claiming that the terms of the deal were changed after initial demands for transparency were made under a FOI request.

Furthermore, cabinet minister Lord Agnew owed £90,000 of shares in the company when it was awarded a £2.3m contract from the NHSX to help run the NHS Covid-19 Data Store, according to Digital Health. A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed the conflict of interest, although the organisation found "no evidence he was involved in awarding or managing the procurements". It also notes he relinquished his shares on 23 August 2020.

At the start of the month, NHS Digital signed a deal with Scandit, an augmented reality solutions provider, to digitise the UK’s Covid testing process. The company was going to provide the NHS with a data capture service in the form of barcode scanning technology to make it easier to track and identify tested samples.

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