Dr. Simon Eccles, Chief Clinical Information Officer (CCIO) for Health and Care of UK’s National Health Service (NHS) said the new national artificial intelligence (AI) lab will engage in “rigorous” testing of new technologies to see if they can deliver scalable benefits to the public health system. 

Speaking at a panel session at the NHS Health and Care Innovation Expo 2019 (NHS Expo) in Manchester on 4 September, Eccles was questioned by the fellow audience on the details of this £250 million government-back project. Eccles revealed the lab is due to open in April 2020 and will be run by NHSX, NHS’s digital unit launched officially this July. 

A change in mindset 

“(The AI lab) is about taking all the great examples of health AI we see in prototypes, medical journals and so on, and rigorously testing if they can deliver tangible, scalable benefits for the NHS” Eccles said. He added industries such as farming and shipping had demonstrated “phenomenal leaps in standardization and digitalization”, yet, NHS failed to keep up with the momentum. 

NHS staff had to “shrug and accept” outdated computer systems and delayed log-in times. Eccles thought the mentality of UK’s health service towards technology “is wrong” and it needs to be changed in order to recruit and retain staff and for people to better perform their jobs by automating routine and boring tasks. “This is a wholesale mindset change that we have to get to,” Eccles said. 

A pivotal role 

In a separate session hosted by NHSX on day two of the NHS Expo, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said the new national AI lab will play a pivotal role in changing patient experience and improving digital health in the UK. Hancock was due to attend the session but was absent on the day itself, instead, a pre-recorded video was played to address the audience. 

 “(The lab) will boost the national research capability with a controlled environment where we can train algorithms, trial new concepts and scale up the best ideas… Crucially, it will ensure we get the right laws and ethical frameworks in place as well as the right technology. This is ultimately what it is all about,” Hancock said. “We care about the technology because we care about people. Clinicians will have more time to look after their patients and themselves and patients will be more in control of their own health and their own healthcare”. 

A common language 

Overall, Hancock believed NHSX had gathered “powers, money and policy leaders” to enhance the technology within the NHS. He acknowledged that the organization had embarked on a journey with “a common language of technical standards, so systems can talk to each other and the essential diagnostic information can get where it’s needed”. 

He continued, “we need a shared language for recording diagnoses and medicine, a consistent way of capturing and exchanging information, and open standards published on the web. This isn’t just some niche issue driven by tech geeks and enthusiasts and open data obsessives. This is about saving lives and making life easier for staff”. 

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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.