Matt Hancock, UK’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care launched yesterday (28 January) a £140-million artificial intelligence (AI) award.

Speaking at the half-day long Parliament and HealthTech Conference held in Westminster, Hancock said the award aimed to introduce life-saving initiatives to the National Health Service (NHS), the 70-year-old public health system. The award will be managed by the NHSx, the digital unit of NHS launched last July and Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC), part of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence which fosters partnerships across public and private bodies to support medical and healthcare innovations.

The £140 million forms part of the £250 million boost to set up a new National AI Laboratory believed to open this April. Companies are encouraged to bring forward their novel plans and the award will be shared among ideas that demonstrated the greatest potential to save lives, enhance the delivery of care, and relieve the burden of NHS staff. The first call for application had begun and will be open for five weeks.

In search for user-centered technology

Hancock emphasized the whole agenda of this new award is not about technology but people. He believes the best technology belongs to the kinds that one hardly noticed because they just work naturally. Also, the chosen technologies should keep healthcare workers away from their screens; facilitate more eye-contact with fellow patients, and “humanize” a challenging and demanding working environment where one can dedicate their time to do what they love.

“Giving clinicians back the gift of time and allowing them to care” Hancock said. “That’s what we’re aiming for, it’s what clinicians are crying out for, it’s what patients expect and it’s what will bring our NHS into the 21stcentury”. As such, anyone intending to bid for this award to work closely alongside with the new National AI Laboratory will have to comply with NHS’s Code of Conduct for data-driven technologies and other related regulations, ensuring safety, ethics, and privacy of patients are the foremost priorities.

“Throughout our history, the NHS has led the way in designing, developing and introducing cutting-edge technology, and as we futureproof the health service for the 21stcentury and beyond, AI has the potential to transform how we deliver patients’ care,” NHS’ Chief Executive Simon Stevens added.

A top-down approach  

Relentless is probably the word to describe NHS’ recent effort to instil technology and innovations into its practice. However, its approach remains relatively conservative. From Innovate UK, the non-departmental public body aims to boost UK’s research innovations; to NHS Innovation Accelerator, supporting the absorption and deployment of new creations across NHS Trusts, and clinical entrepreneur program, which encourages fellow healthcare workers to come up with solutions tackling challenges within the system, all these are top-down initiatives and it’s unclear whether NHS is truly celebrating innovations or outsourcing others to solve the challenges faced by the system.

Nevertheless, a new report by The Medical Technology Group (MTG), a UK think-tank working to improve cost-effective access of medical technologies spoke in favour of such approach. It also refers Hancock as the “buck stops” (i.e., buck passing) shall NHS will like to adopt a “culture of innovation”. Specifically, according to Barbara Harpham, MTG’s Chairman, NHS needs to ensure the medical technologies it adopts are “joined up” from evaluation, adoption, reimbursement, to deployment and review.

Ultimately, MTG hopes NHS will set aside an “early access to medical technology” scheme for patients to benefit from the kind of medical technology or innovation required for their conditions. MTG also suggests initiatives should have a “less is better” mindset, in helping to remove or reduce demands shouldered by NHS staff, and present payment or tariff should undergo a reform so that proven technologies can be assimilated into the system quickly.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.