Why the NHS could be a global leader in A.I.

As syndicated in the Sunday Telegraph

Can robots really save the NHS? Last week Jeremy Hunt, the secretary of state for health and social care doubled down on ambitious plans for the deployment of artificial intelligence software across the NHS, with a particular focus on cancer detection.

The idea that software programmes could spot cancer earlier than trained radiologists may seem outlandish, yet for people working with healthcare start-ups in Britain, Mr Hunt’s plan seems not just feasible but perhaps not ambitious enough. Rather than just looking at what technologies the NHS could adopt from the outside to improve care, it should be looking to develop its own services to provide to the world.

We all know there is no technological “magic wand” that can be waved to cure the many challenges facing the NHS. However the progress made in recent years by frontier companies using artificial intelligence in fields as varied as cancer detection and diabetes management now offer genuine promise.

Genomic sequencers, machines which turn our genetic code into usable data, are now increasing in power and falling in cost quicker than the semiconductors which power every computer on the planet. Algorithms developed by Google are helping British doctors spot signs of eye disease earlier than ever before.

And technology start-ups like Sophia Genetics have already diagnosed cancers quicker and with greater accuracy for over 200,000 patients across the world using artificial intelligence. Combining genomic data with improvements in the accuracy of blood tests, computer vision abilities and even robotic surgery is changing modern healthcare.

The UK is not alone in recognising the importance of such software. China committed 60bn yuan (£7bn) in 2015 to further research in genomics and in 2016, President Barack Obama proposed a $1bn (£710m) investment to cure cancer, describing it as a “moon shot”. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple which is now the world’s most valuable public company, says their software could make a “significant contribution” to healthcare.

The UK may not be able to match that level of financial investment, but the NHS, in its 70th anniversary year, is already in a stronger position than many software companies or foreign governments. For artificially intelligent healthcare solutions to work, they need huge amounts of data and expertise and it is in these two fields that the NHS truly excels.

Few healthcare institutions are able to provide care from cradle to grave and from the common cold to cancer. Increasingly, many people believe Google has an advantage in healthcare given most people search for their symptoms online well before they go to a doctor.

But Google has little compared to the amounts of human expertise held in the decades of experience of our nurses, doctors and surgeons have amassed, or the insights they hold from caring for the 1m patients that use the NHS every day.

By combining these insights, the NHS could develop world-leading software and services. By working with our academic institutions and start-ups to develop artificially intelligent solutions, a strong state-owned NHS could become a global provider of excellent, efficient and ethical healthcare software while generating capital to reduce the cost of caring for our most vulnerable here at home. A free national healthcare service, providing British healthcare software to the world.

As someone who works with start-ups everyday, I’ve seen the speed of change in the world of digital health increase dramatically, and if we want the NHS to celebrate its centenary in years to come, it has to plan for such change today. The technological ability to do this isn’t far away, the real challenge is ensuring we get the capital, cultural and political support required to get there.