NHS trusts will be able to bid for funding to accelerate the deployment of the most promising artificial intelligence (AI) tools after Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Steve Barclay announced a new £21 million fund.

The funding boost will help trusts to roll out AI tools in hospitals to help tackle the problem of long waiting lists.

In addition, the Government has committed to deploying AI decision-support tools in all stroke networks by the end of this year, to ensure stroke patients benefit from improved diagnosis and access to treatment. Currently, only 86% of stroke networks have AI stroke-diagnosis technology.

The use of AI tools for stroke diagnosis can have a huge impact on patient outcomes. Where such technology is already in place it can help doctors to diagnose a stroke faster, which has been shown to triple the chance of patients living independently after the event. At Ipswich Hospital, AI-powered software from Brainomix has seen the hospital achieve better than the national average for time taken for patients to be assessed by a stroke consultant.

The ring-fenced funding was announced ahead of the NHS’ 75th birthday.

Barclay said: “Artificial intelligence is already transforming the way we deliver healthcare and AI tools are already making a significant impact across the NHS in diagnosing conditions earlier, meaning people can be treated more quickly.

“As we celebrate the NHS’s 75th birthday and look ahead to the future, I’m focused on adopting the latest cutting-edge technology across our health and care system to ensure we can continue to deliver the best care for our patients and cut waiting times, which is one of the government’s five priorities.”

Improving patient outcomes

The AI Diagnostic Fund will include the use of AI tools to analyse chest x-rays to detect lung cancer. Every month over 600,000 chest x-rays are performed in England. The use of AI tools will have a significant impact in supporting clinicians to diagnose cancer patients earlier, improving their health outcomes.

NHS trusts will be able to bid for any AI diagnostic tool that they wish to deploy, but they will have to show that it represents value for money in order for the funding to be approved.

Every year the NHS spends £10 billion on medical technology alone, with patients benefitting from breakthroughs that enable the prevention of ill health, earlier diagnosis, more effective treatments and faster recovery.

Already, the government has invested £123 million into 84 different AI technologies all designed to improve diagnosis, screening, monitoring and managing conditions.

The future of diagnostics

Dr Katharine Halliday, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: “At a time when diagnostic services are under strain, it is critical that we embrace innovation that could boost capacity – and so we welcome the Government’s announcement of a £21 million fund to purchase and deploy AI diagnostic tools.

“All doctors want to give patients the best possible care. This starts with a timely diagnosis, and crucially, catching disease at the earliest point. There is huge promise in AI, which could save clinicians time by maximising our efficiency, supporting our decision-making and helping identify and prioritise the most urgent cases. Together with a highly trained and expert radiologist workforce, AI will undoubtedly play a significant part in the future of diagnostics.”

The government’s commitment to artificial intelligence in healthcare has also seen it recently announce a new AI & Digital Regulation Service. This service helps NHS staff find the right information and guidance for deploying AI devices safely. In addition, it has made it simpler for developers and adopters of AI to better understand the regulations that govern AI in the NHS, helping them to bring products to market quickly.

Users, suppliers welcome announcement

Darren Stephens, senior vice president & commercial head for UK and Europe at Qure.ai said: “The announcement of an ‘AI Diagnostic Fund’ to accelerate the rollout of AI across the NHS is an immense opportunity to help diagnose patients more quickly. For example, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the UK. Despite the positivity of lung cancer screening services to date, there is a growing shortage of radiologists to interpret the resulting diagnostic images.

“The new NHS initiative will fund the use of AI tools to analyse chest X-rays, the most common tool used to diagnose lung cancer.  AI will support clinicians to diagnose cancer patients earlier, improving life outcomes for many more people. ”

Ayesha Iqbal, IEEE senior member and engineering trainer at the Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre said: “The emergence of AI in healthcare has completely reshaped the way we diagnose, treat and monitor patients. Despite numerous applications being considered promising, the adoption of AI in healthcare is facing some challenges, such as complexity of AI systems, lack of technology awareness, lack of skilled AI workforce and regulatory guidelines, and lack of trust. Therefore, it is crucial to establish ethical guidelines and standards, ensure data privacy and security, offer trialability, and educate patients so that trust can be developed. At that point, widespread adoption of AI in healthcare can be realised.” 

Dr Jay Verma, GP partner and machine learning expert, who will also be President of the Primary Care section of the royal society of medicine, noted that a study of a London primary care network found using machine learning could save 66% of GP appointments.  

The potential for AI to help treatment of chronic diseases was cited by Fiona Carragher, director of research and influencing at Alzheimer’s Society, who said: “While much of recent debate about artificial intelligence has focused on potential risks, there is no doubt that it offers enormous opportunities for healthcare. Beyond diagnosis, AI will increasingly be used to transform how we live with chronic diseases, including dementia.