Chris Netherton, M.D.

Using Artificial Intelligence to help improve our healthcare systems

This month, NHS England has announced that it will be committing greater levels of investment behind Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning systems, to help our medical professionals. The potential benefits from this new technology are huge.

Simon Stevens, NHS Chief Executive, wants to see much faster adoption of these kinds of technologies over the next few years. He has highlighted specific areas such as dermatology, radiology and pathology where AI systems can potentially carry out much of the analysis and diagnostic work far more quickly than people can, freeing up time for our medical professionals to devote to other aspects of patient care.

In his announcement, Simon Stevens pointed out that over the course of their career a radiologist would typically study over 10 million different images. Not only do the latest AI systems have the capability to scan and analyse these vast sets of information very rapidly and accurately, they are also able to learn and improve as they do this work, so that the quality of their output is continually advancing.

The NHS believes that machines will soon be able to accurately analyse tissue samples and X-rays. There is already evidence that this type of technology can be helpful in the early diagnoses of conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism, while previous studies have suggested that AI can be better than humans in using retinal images to diagnose illnesses such as macular oedema.

Around the world, there is some fascinating work being done in this area that will transform the way that healthcare is delivered in the future.

A number of companies have developed AI Health Assistants that can help alleviate some of the day to day routine work for doctors. For example, in outpatient work, a lot of time is taken up asking patients questions about their symptoms and current lifestyle, measuring and recording their vital signs, and updating their health records. AI Health Assistants could do much of this work, allowing doctors to concentrate on diagnosis and treatment.

Another area of primary care where AI can help is in the creation of personalised treatment plans. The system can quickly review all the patient’s health information and diagnosis, look at all the available treatment options, and put a selection of personalised solutions in front of the doctor to be assessed. Technology like this has the capability to allow doctors to deliver better quality of treatment to a larger number of patients within their existing working day.

As someone who works in the field of medical software and in the accurate capturing and recording of patient data, I am passionate about seeing our systems being used to their full potential. I was therefore really pleased to see the NHS also announce that they are determined to make greater progress in the large scale analysis of anonymised clinical data. Although it would be vital to ensure that patients and surgeries were happy for this use of ‘Big Data’, this could represent a large step forward for healthcare. The NHS has access to some of the largest and most sophisticated health datasets in the world. The opportunities for advancing our medical knowledge by using AI systems to interrogate these datasets are exciting and could lead to some vital breakthroughs in the way that we treat the most challenging illnesses.

Of course, we will need to give patients complete confidence regarding issues such as data security, confidentiality and governance. But we owe it to future generations to make the most of the exciting medical innovations that AI could make possible for us.