The government has pledged £250 million for a National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab to improve diagnostics and screening in the NHS.

The lab will be used to develop treatments for cancer, dementia and heart disease.

The programme aims to improve cancer screening and speed up results, use DNA data to identify patients most at-risk of diseases, upskill the workforce to use artificial intelligence (AI) systems and automate routine administration tasks to free up clinicians.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said the NHS was “leading the way” in harnessing new technology.

“Today’s funding is not just about the future of care though. It will also boost the frontline by automating admin tasks and freeing up staff to care for patients,” he added.

The lab will sit within NHSX, in partnership with the Accelerated Access Collaborative, and bring together the industry’s best academics, specialists and technology companies to harness the power of AI to improve the health and lives of patients.

Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, added: “Today’s announcement gets the NHS ready for the AI revolution, so that doctors can identify and treat disease faster and more effectively. It also puts the UK in pole position for healthtech research and lifesaving innovations.”

NHSX confirmed on Twitter that the funding is “new money”.

AI is already being developed in a number of NHS hospitals, including in Imperial College London to predict survival rates for ovarian cancer and in University College Hospital to predict missed appointments and allow staff to follow-up with targeted phone calls, saving £2-3 per appointment.

Data from a Genomics England programme that will see five million NHS patients receive a free personalised health record based on their DNA will also be linked into the lab.

The programme, announced in July, will see volunteers have their genomes analysed to identify their risk of developing diseases like cancer or heart disease.

The project follows the 100,000 Genomes Project, which ran from 2013 to 2018 and led to roughly one in four participants with a rare disease receiving a diagnosis.

Government’s AI Lab proposals:

  • Build systems to improve cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring, helping to save millions of lives a year
  • 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
  • Use DNA tests or already-available data to help screening programs identify patients most at risk of diseases, allowing for earlier diagnosis and cheaper, more effective treatment
  • Build predictive systems to detect people at risk of postoperative complications, infections or requiring targeted follow-up from clinicians, improving patient safety and reducing readmission rates
  • Upskill the NHS workforce so they know how to use AI systems to assist with day-to-day tasks
  • Inspect algorithms already used by the NHS to increase the standards of AI safety within our healthcare system, making systems fairer, more robust and ensuring patient confidentiality is protected to the highest standards
  • Automate routine admin tasks to free up clinicians so more time can be spent with patients

Second wave of NHS funding this week

It’s the second wave of NHS funding announced by Downing Street this week.

On 4 August, Johnson pledged a £1.8 billion cash injection for the NHS, with part of the money going towards harnessing the potential of new technologies.

Some 20 hospital projects are to benefit from a £850 million funding package to upgrade outdated facilities and equipment, with a further £1 billion to boost capital spending to tackle urgent infrastructure projects.

Responding to the announcement chair of the Digital Health CCIO Network, James Reed, said more funding was needed to “fundamentally change” the NHS.

“We have benefited hugely from recent investments such as the GDE [Global Digital Exemplar] programme and I would like the whole digital agenda to feature in this new spending,” he said.

“It would be a missed opportunity if this money was spent on capital developments without associated investment in the staff and skills which will be needed to make the most of them.”