What can the UK do with a £250M NHS AI lab?

The UK government has recently announced that they will invest £250M (around $300M) to launch the National Health Service’s (NHS) AI lab. With that much investment coming from public funds, what can AI do to improve the country’s healthcare?


The AI lab will bring together the industry’s best specialists, academics, and tech companies to tackle major industry challenges such as cancer detection, dementia treatments, and personalised care.


According to the government's press release, the new NHS AI lab will possibly tackle the following areas and issues:

  • improve cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests, including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans, and heart monitoring
  • use predictive models to better estimate future needs of beds, drugs, devices, or surgeries
  • identify which patients could be more easily treated in the community, reducing the pressure on the NHS and helping patients receive treatment closer to home
  • identify patients most at risk of diseases such as heart disease or dementia—allowing for earlier diagnosis and cheaper, more focused, personalised prevention
  • build systems to detect people at risk of post-operative complications or infections, or requiring follow-up from clinicians, improving patient safety and reducing readmission rates
  • upskill the NHS workforce so they can use AI systems for day-to-day tasks
  • inspect algorithms already used by the NHS to increase the standards of AI safety, making systems fairer, more robust and ensuring patient confidentiality is protected
  • automate routine admin tasks to free up clinicians so more time can be spent with patients


Aside from the above mentioned, new PM Boris Johnson says that the investment will not only improve the future of healthcare but will also help automate admin tasks. AI will allow the staff to focus more on the patients.



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What challenges will the NHS AI lab face?

Data security issues

Large-scale projects such as launching an AI lab often raise questions.


For one, the issue of patients’ data security and confidentiality is one of the major questions brought up after the facility’s announcement.


A paper by the Imperial College London showed that the NHS’ data security measures were not enough. In fact, two years ago, the Royal Free Hospital (which is under the Royal Free London NHS Foundation) was found to have illegally shared patient records to Google’s AI company DeepMind Technologies.


To address this concern, the government has promised to spend £150 million to improve cybersecurity for the next three years.



Funding and other infrastructures

Director of Data Analytics at the Health Foundation Adama Steventon said that the government should clarify where the money would come from and whether there would be compromises. So far, the government has yet to address this question.


Aside from this, Steventon also mentions, “Despite the extra capital funding pledged this week, there remains a £6bn maintenance backlog for supporting basic infrastructure, including IT equipment, of which over £3bn is identified as ‘high or significant risk’.”


Prior to this investment, the prime minister has already announced that the government will be investing £1.8bn to upgrade infrastructure, equipment, and facilities for 20 hospitals across the country. The PM also mentioned that this funding was possible due to the country’s strong economic growth.



Staff shortage and training

Steventon also commented that the NHS is currently short of 100,000 staff which will challenge the organisation to sustain its current services while taking on the incoming new technology. 


Aside from the number of needed staff, Researcher Matthew Honeyman from The King’s Fund said that NHS’ staff feels that the new AI tech could make their work harder. According to Honeyman, “Rolling out new technologies like AI will require standards to ensure patient safety, a workforce equipped with digital skills and an upgrade to outdated basic NHS tech infrastructure.”



Despite these challenges, Health Secretary Matt Hancock says that it is important that NHS AI lab “represented society.” He also promises that he will ‘ensure that our NHS harness AI to develop cutting edge treatments, reduce pressure on staff working lives and ultimately save lives.” 



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