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Artificial intelligence will be adopted, says NHS England

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Artificial intelligence and ‘machine learning’ will be used in areas such as radiology, dermatology and pathology to ‘improve clinical care’ – and to get through more time-consuming work than health professionals can, NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has said.

Unveiling his plans for the year ahead at the NHS Health and Care Innovation Expo on Wednesday Mr Stevens said major innovations were in the pipeline.

Mr Stevens cited a study in The Lancet as the inspiration for his announcement suggesting that over a career a radiologist might read 10 million images and a dermatologist might analyse 200,000 skin samples – but that technology could dwarf those numbers.

The study suggested AI (artificial intelligence), in these areas, had ‘the potential to interpret clinical data more accurately and more rapidly than medical specialists’ – and that the latest technology means the machinery actually learns and improves as it progresses.

The Lancet article explains that AI is capable of working and learning in the same way humans – from past experience – if given access to databases containing images.

It suggests past studies have shown AI to be more successful than humans in detecting diabetic retinopathy and macular oedema from retinal images and that existing ‘platforms’ or computer software and hardware already exist to make the next steps, citing IBM Watson or Google Deep Mind as examples.

He said: ‘Not only is there a huge energy and hunger for innovation across the NHS in the way the service is organised but also at the fundamental treatment level there is a lot in prospect. Our job is to accelerate that as we move the frontier of what modern medicine looks like faster. This will be an area NHS England will be backing with investment over the next 12 months.’

Mr Stevens said great strides had been made in recent months and years and documented a list of impressive recent innovations including bionic eyes and hand transplants.

Announcing a further programme of work – potentially including the artificial intelligence projects – Mr Stevens said NHS England would make strides in decreasing the price of deals done with big pharmaceutical companies, undertake work to make use of the swathes of anonymised political data available to NHS managers and increase use of medical products identical or near identical to branded alternatives, otherwise known as biosimilars.

Mr Stevens said he was officially setting the aim that 90 per cent of patients would get the best value biomedicine, or biosimilar, within three months of its launch – claiming the pledge would save up to £300m ‘over the next several years’.

He said: ‘The opportunities and the funding pressures in medicines are very substantial so we need … to get smarter and more creative about the way we do our deals with the pharmaceutical industry.’

He added: ‘I don’t think any of us underestimate the challenges that may arrive – that includes tackling entrenched ways of working and sometimes genuine disputes about what constitutes the way forward but the NHS has always been like that.’

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