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The implications of Artificial Intelligence for healthcare

13 September 2019

What is artificial intelligence?

There is rarely a day when artificial intelligence (AI) doesn’t make the news. We can trace the beginnings of AI back to ancient ideas that were then developed by the likes of Alan Turing. AI has opened the world up to the notion that machines can learn, reason and self-correct in a similar way to that of the human brain.

While some people fear that AI could one day get too smart and lead to robot world-domination, generally it is regarded in a positive, progressive light. One of the sectors benefitting from developments in AI is healthcare, including the NHS. It is already helping to move the sector forward and is ultimately enabling clinicians to provide better care for patients.

Below, we reflect on how the AI landscape is evolving in the healthcare sector so far.

The pros: aiding the UK’s biggest asset to be at the forefront of health technology

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, recently announced that £250m will be invested in AI for the NHS, primarily through a national ‘AI laboratory’. This is in line with promises made in the NHS Long Term Plan (2019) to propel the NHS forward by investing in modern technologies.

It is hoped that AI and technology will be able to transform all areas of the NHS, from clerical to clinical. University College London Hospitals has recently announced its successful development of an AI tool that recognises patients who are most likely to miss appointments. This particular AI can predict 90% of skipped appointments, which could save UCLH alone millions of pounds. With the emergence of this type of AI, it begs the question of what impact this could have if rolled out across our entire NHS.

Elsewhere, at the Royal Free Hospital, a trial of a non-AI based technology that gives doctors real-time updates on kidney injury conditions has been successfully completed. The app, named Streams, originally had no ties to AI but was rather a sophisticated monitoring tool developed in partnership with Google’s DeepMind.

Now, however, scientists are exploring the possibility of developing it into an AI system that can predict a kidney injury two days before it even occurs. Although this might sound like an invention that belongs somewhere in the future, DeepMind has already created a prototype model. Though the model still needs further testing, this kind of algorithm could enable doctors to detect and address deterioration earlier, ultimately enabling the NHS to care for patients more efficiently.

doctor using technology to diagnose

The cons: data breach risks add pressure to a stretched workforce

However, it is important to remain aware of the implications these technologies may have for the public, medical professionals and the government.

One of the hot topics of the last 12 months springs to mind: data. The way patient data is stored, shared and handled, specifically. In an earlier iteration of the agreement between DeepMind and the Royal Free, the Data Protection Act was breached when the hospital transferred the records of 1.6 million patients to the AI developer. The Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the Royal Free acted beyond its authority based on the fact the Streams app was still in the testing stage, and patients were not aware that their data was to be used as part of the test.

Training is another point of contention within the AI in healthcare debate. In any clerical or clinical setting, training is necessary to carry out duties effectively and thoroughly. Staff of the NHS would argue, however, that – alongside the urgent need for more robust staffing – time should be allocated to ensure that the workforce can get to grips with whatever ‘cutting-edge’ tech is being shoehorned into their department.

This has been an ongoing point of contention between pro-technology health secretary, Matt Hancock, and voices from the NHS. As is often the case in healthcare progress, passionate views on all sides can be both largely right but not the whole answer.

The NHS sometimes finds itself caught in an ‘either or’ argument between – new equipment or staffing, buildings or training – when the reality is it needs both side by side. The NHS needs an updated staffing plan to support the way we work and learn, as well as our ever evolving health and care needs. But it also needs the best technology, intelligence and thinking to maximise benefits for patients. It is here that artificial intelligence offers huge potential.

As ever in healthcare, the fundamental question is how do we have it all? How do we make it affordable, and yet, can we afford not to?

Freshwater’s healthcare team prides itself on staying abreast of the latest developments in the NHS and broader healthcare landscape. Follow us @FreshwaterUK for regular healthcare news updates.

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