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NHS needs to make better use of data and AI

Government report warns third parties could instead take advantage of the reams of data the NHS holds

Doctor holding a clipboard

A report by the government has warned the NHS needs to make better use of the opportunities provided by AI and data analysis if it's to compete with private medical companies.

The report, penned by Oxford University's Sir John Bell, said the NHS is in danger of wasting public money if it doesn't start processing the data it holds on patients, which could unlock the answers to many challenges faced by the healthcare sector at present.

If the NHS doesn't act quickly, it could find third parties use the information instead and sell it onto technology companies to the detriment of the public service.

"What you don't want is somebody rocking up and using NHS data as a learning set for the generation of algorithms and then moving the algorithm to San Francisco and selling it so all the profits come back to another jurisdiction," he said.

He explained that it should be an ambition of the government to better use the information it holds, offering better real-time data than simple human monitoring. It should use speech recognition and automated diagnosis technologies to support human monitoring when predicting mental health, cancer and inflammatory disease patient outcomes, for example.

Bell said, however, that the NHS must be wary about using live data for such trials, following on from the recent controversy with the Royal Free Hospital sharing 1.6 million patient records with Google's DeepMind. The government should work more centrally with tech businesses rather than as individual bodies, he added.

"Existing data access agreements in the UK for algorithm development have currently been completed at a local level with mainly large companies and may not share the rewards fairly, given the essential nature of NHS patient data to developing algorithms," warned Bell.

"There is an opportunity for defining a clear framework to better realise the true value for the NHS of the data at a national level, as currently agreements made locally may not share the benefit with other regions," he added in the report.

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