The year 2020 has undoubtedly provided those in healthcare and technology communities with multiple problems to solve. From enabling telemedicine at scale to creating and distributing an entirely new vaccine, the problems caused by the pandemic have required collaboration, investment and adoption at speed previously unseen in healthcare.
As well as solving the acute problems caused by the vaccine, healthcare organisations are now faced with the challenge of addressing a significant backlog. New NHS England figures show the number of patients waiting to start treatment at the end of October 2020 was 4.44 million and of those, 162,888 were waiting more than a full year. While we were dealing with the immediate issue, a lot of healthcare stopped, but the requirement for it certainly did not. A great deal now needs to be done. Can A.I. help clear the healthcare backlog? In September 2020, NHSX, the organisation driving the digital transformation of health and social care, announced that 42 tech companies will receive a share of over £50M ($66M) in phase one of its £140M ($186M) AI in Health and Care Award. The award, part of the NHS AI Lab programme, is the latest actualisation of the NHS Long Term Plan and Simon Stevens’ 2019 commitment of £250M ($330M) investment to enable collaboration and co-creation between government, health and care providers, academics and technology companies so they can address the existing barriers to development and deployment of AI systems in health and care. In doing so, the hope is to catalyse the adoption of AI in healthcare whilst creating an environment to develop the appropriate guidance and regulations to protect patients. Many trying to innovate in healthcare still face jibes about the use of fax machines in hospitals, but this level of investment from a central NHS organisation into AI companies shows that there is a contradicting, simultaneous, high-tech strategy at play. And it looks to be for the long term. With a second competition closing last week, this commitment for continuation in the same vein and the blossoming relationship between innovative technology startups and the NHS shows early promise. MORE FOR YOUMore Evidence That You Can Get Covid-19 Coronavirus TwiceIs The Covid-19 Vaccine Safe?Fauci: Johnson & Johnson Could Join Pfizer And Moderna To Produce Covid-19 Vaccines By March Could the U.K. become the global leader in healthcare AI? This first tranche of investment boasts companies at a range of stages, from minimum viable products to established companies ready to scale. By addressing the earlier-stage pipeline as well as the quicker wins likely with larger and more established players, there certainly appears to be a long term strategy with the risk spread across an appealing cohort of organisations. Winners of the award include the likes of Ibex Medical Analytics who are pioneering the use of AI in pathology as a means of improving diagnosis of prostate cancer. As part of the award program, Ibex’s GalenTM Prostate solution will be used in 6 NHS hospitals in the largest ever government funded multi-site deployment in the U.K.. During the study, researchers from Imperial College London, University College London, University Hospitals Coventry & Warwickshire, Oxford University Hospitals and other institutes will provide evidence on the AI solution’s performance in detecting and grading cancer. Kheiron Medical also features amongst the award winners. In the last few years the company has been working to increase adoption of their deep learning software, which aims to solve critical challenges in the NHS Breast Screening Programme (NHSBSP) by reducing missed cancers, tackling the escalating shortage of radiologists and improving delays that put women’s lives at risk. ADVERTISEMENT Commenting on the significance of the new NHS/industry initiatives for the entire healthcare ecosystem, Dr Indra Joshi, Director of AI at NHSX said: “AI in healthcare is an exciting space, but there is still a lot to do before we realise its full potential. The AI in Health and Care Award is supporting some amazing technologies from early stage research to ready-to-use products that are changing the way we provide healthcare, and the way that patients experience healthcare, which should not be underestimated. The whole initiative is important because we’re actively putting money into the system to not just develop, but also to effectively deploy AI technology into the NHS, to help us make sure that we’re ultimately getting real value for care.” The awards appear to be one part of a large scale commitment that demonstrates a considered, long term view to adopting AI into U.K. healthcare, given the numerous projects and initiatives that make up the NHS AI Lab programme. With the ever increasing need for new ways of working to clear the 4.4 million-strong waiting lists, AI solutions, correctly adopted, could provide the much-needed boost to efficiency that the U.K. now needs. Over the next few years, as AI is adopted at scale across multiple clinical pathways, ‘potential’ could quickly change to ‘necessity.’ If the promised efficiency gains are realised, the health system will begin to adjust to new, higher standards of speed and accuracy in diagnosis and treatment and, optimistically, we may soon reminisce about far less efficient healthcare pre-AI. ADVERTISEMENT Beyond the potential benefits to patients and clinicians through increasing the quality of care, the prize for accelerating the adoption of AI and increasing efficiency is, in theory, widespread economic saving. However, Dr Hugh Harvey, Managing Director of Hardian Health, a consultancy helping researchers, industry and investors bring digital solutions to healthcare, wants the optimists to keep their feet on the ground and their view on timelines, realistic: “It’s great to see this early funding, but let’s not be under any illusion; we’ll need a lot more down the line. Adopting AI into healthcare will be a long, slow burn and we cannot rush the required validation and testing.”