The NHS is looking to train staff in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, according to the secretary of state for health and social care, Jeremy Hunt.
Hunt has announced a review of how tens of thousands of NHS staff can be trained to use the technologies. “Every week we hear about exciting new developments surfacing in the NHS, which could help provide answers to some of our greatest challenges, such as cancer or chronic illness,” he said.
“These give us a glimpse of what the future of the whole NHS could be, which is why in the year of the NHS’ 70th birthday I want to empower staff to offer patients modern healthcare more widely and more quickly.”
Internet of Business recently published its own report on how AI could be a benefit to the NHS and other healthcare professionals.
Dr Eric Topol will lead the government’s review on behalf of the Health Service. Topol is executive VP of private US healthcare research group, Scripps Research Institute, and an expert in cardiology, genetics, and digital medicine research.
He will look at opportunities for the NHS to invest in training for existing staff, while also considering the impact that the technology may have on skills. Topol will consider AI, robotics, genomics, and other technologies, according to the government’s announcement.
Topol said that while it is hard to predict the future, advances such as AI, digital medicine, and genomics “will have an enormous impact for improving the efficiency and precision in healthcare.
“Our review will focus on the extraordinary opportunities to leverage these technologies for the healthcare workforce and power a sustainable and vibrant NHS,” he said.
Topol will kick off the review with a visit to the Moorfields Eye Hospital, which is already investigating the use of machine learning in eye scans, giving doctors a better understanding of eye disease.
The strategic context
The announcement comes just a day after the government confirmed details of the new ‘£1 billion’ sector deal for AI, which matches £300 million of public sector investment with up to £700 million from a range of private companies and academic partnerships.
In February, the government announced the establishment of a new Office for AI, led by Gila Sacks, director of digital and tech policy at DCMS, and Dr Rannia Leontaridi, director of Business Growth at BEIS.
Sacks said that the government was setting aside an immediate budget of £20 million across Whitehall to encourage all government departments, and the wider public sector, to deploy AI; today’s announcement would appear to be part of that programme.
Speaking in February, Sacks said, “We really believe that the right governance, the right regulation, can make the UK the place to innovate by giving confidence to citizens and certainty, and clarity to investors and innovators.”
Internet of Business says
The need for technology assistance in health and social care is real. By 2020 there will be 12 million people over the age of 65 in the UK alone, and by 2035 that figure will have increased to 17 million.
However, in England and Wales, 2015-16 care expenditure stood at £8.34 billion, only fractionally more than the £8.3 billion spent a decade earlier. Add in the effects of inflation and an increase of nearly two million in the 65+ population during that period, and this represents a per-capita reduction in available funds of more than one-third.
So, these are challenging times for the NHS and its embattled health secretary. In February, Whitehall’s own Equality Analysis found that rising debt levels put off students from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities. This would starve the NHS of both diversity and new recruits if the bursary for trainee nurses is withdrawn and replaced by tuition fees, as Hunt recently proposed.
Last year, right-wing Think Tank Reform – an organisation supported by Hunt and Prime Minister Theresa May, who have both spoken at events – suggested that widespread automation, AI, and robotics could sweep 250,000 workers out of the public sector and help the government to slash costs, by forcing nurses, doctors, teachers, and other workers to compete via reverse auction in the gig economy – in other words, bid against their peers to work for less money.
The controversial proposals, which saw AI and automation purely in cost-benefit terms, were rightly criticised by many, but chimed with recent government policy statements about the benefits of the technologies.
Last Summer, Internet of Business editor Chris Middleton asked the Prime Minister’s personal advisor on AI and automation, Prof Philip Bond of the Council for Science and Technology, about the government’s attitude to new technology.
Bond said, “The government has understood that innovation in technology and the transfer of technology into society that we have are responsible for something like 50 percent of productivity gains.
“There is now evidence that since 2002-2008, we are flatlining in productivity. We also know from the Bank of England that living standards are really strongly determined by productivity gains in the economy. So driving productivity is extremely important – driven by the way that R&D is impacting on society.”
So while Hunt is, rightly, talking up AI’s ability to help create smarter, more agile, better-informed patient care, the subtext is a policy that is fundamentally about cutting costs and raising productivity, which is a brute-force application of smart systems.
Countless studies in recent years, such as the RSA’s Age of Automation report last year, have stressed that implementing AI and robotics purely to slash costs is a misguided, risk-freighted approach.
That said, recent OECD figures about the future shape of the UK economy reveal that improving productivity is a must – alongside greater investment in R&D. They also reveal an outflow of some £300 billion in foreign investment last year, compared with 2016, in what would appear to be evidence of Brexit alarm.
So the review is timely, strategic, and valuable. However, the presence of a private US healthcare professional – albeit from a non-profit organisation – will doubtless raise eyebrows as worries spread of stealth privatisation in the NHS. Particularly as Scripps has faced funding and deficit challenges of its own in recent years, according to this report.
We wish Dr. Topol luck with the review.
• Additional reporting and analysis Chris Middleton.