The British government has announced a new fund for artificial intelligence (AI) diagnostic tools in public hospitals. The $26 million fund will be used to develop AI products that can detect diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and strokes more efficiently. The UK government has already awarded $20 million for AI research in healthcare earlier this year as part of a multi-year competition.
Radiological imaging software has been available for some time now, and the UK hopes that this kind of technology will help hospitals deal with major backlogs of care. The country has been battling a shortage of radiologists for years, with breast health particularly pressured. The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has seen waiting lists rise dramatically across the country’s healthcare system. Investing in tools that reduce the burden of reporting scans for clinicians should help hospitals get results out to patients more quickly, and speed up the start of treatment when necessary.
Lung cancer is a major focus for the publicly-funded National Health Service (NHS), with early detection leading to much better patient outcomes. Ministers hope that AI will be particularly helpful for its detection on X-rays, more than 600,000 of which are performed every month.
However, this kind of software is not a magic bullet for the recovery of diagnostic services in the country. Numerous other factors, including the limited availability of scanners, slow down the process of diagnosis and treatment. A report published this week by the King’s Fund think tank notes the UK lags behind many of its peers in terms of the sheer number of MRI and CT scanners available to hospitals.
The NHS national medical director, professor Stephen Powis, said in a statement that the public health system was already using AI to help “catch and treat major diseases earlier, as well as better managing waiting lists so patients can be seen quicker.” The funding boost was “another example of how NHS is continuing its proud history of adopting the latest proven technology to deliver better care for patients and better value for taxpayers”.
Dr Katharine Halliday, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said that it was critical for the country to “embrace innovation that could boost capacity”. “All doctors want to give patients the best possible care,” she added. “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 efficiency, supporting decision-making, and helping identify and prioritise the most urgent cases.”