NHSX's £250m AI Lab to develop 'practical' frontline treatments

The national centre will channel efforts into treating conditions like heart disease and cancer with smart tech

Image of a heart monitor trace on a digital background

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will establish a national artificial intelligence (AI) centre within NHSX to research and develop technologies to enhance patient care.

The new NHSX AI laboratory, launched in partnership with the Accelerated Access Collaborative, will get a 250 million injection to research practical AI tools to treat conditions like heart disease, dementia and cancer.

This centre is being established because the NHS has conventionally struggled with gaining insights from patient data, as well as the fact that data has not been effectively shared between systems and institutions.

"We've got to harness the very best technology, to make sure that we deliver care in the best way possible," said health secretary Matt Hancock.

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"I want our AI lab to generate cutting-edge technology, to diagnose illnesses like sepsis, stroke and heart attacks before symptoms appear. It's amazing and it can be done.

"Genomic testing can predict which conditions we're susceptible to, and that means we can take preventative measures to stay healthier for longer. These are just some of the ways I want to see the tech revolution improving our health and care."

The NHS' latest foray into AI differs slightly from its past ventures, given it's entirely geared towards applying automation and AI-powered analytics in clinical settings.

This is against the majority of initiatives to date that have focused on automating back-office functions to create efficiencies, and therefore free up clinicians' time to focus more on healthcare.

Up to now, there have been a handful of highly promising AI initiatives in hospitals across England. This includes a partnership between Nvidia and King's College London to build an AI platform to automate radiology diagnostics.

Establishing an AI lab that sits within NHSX, however, aims to give AI projects across the health service a greater sense of coherence and national oversight.

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The news also follows NHS England's chief executive Simon Stevens suggesting hospitals, from April 2020, will be financially rewarded for implementing successful AI projects.

"On AI in healthcare, we're the first to admit we don't have all the answers," NHSX said. "We want to work closely with people like the Open Data Institute and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation who've thought deeply about what it means to use data-driven systems in a fair, respectful, transparent and accountable way."

NHSX also confirmed the AI Lab is "new money", after some confusion over the government's recent announcement of an additional 1.8 billion funding package for the NHS. After some analysis, it emerged this money was derived from cash savings that trusts were previously forced to make.

The organisation hopes this 250 million injection will future-proof technology across the health service. This has been lacking in the past, and is one of the main reasons why the NHS struggles with data interoperability.

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"This move - as part of additional investment in artificial intelligence from the NHS - is another step towards using disruptive technology to enhance patient care," said chief clinical information officer with Nuance Communications Dr Simon Wallace.

"This is only the beginning for AI in healthcare. Tech such as ambient clinical intelligence has the ability to listen to physician-patient conversations and enable clinical documentation to draft itself during the consultation, turning natural language into coherent clinical records."

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The AI lab is among the first major forrays by NHSX since it was established by the health secretary in July to drive digital transformation across the health and social care service.

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