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Digital Transformation 2019

AI could revolutionise the NHS – but only if we let it

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Neil Mesher

CEO, Philips UK and Ireland

Technology could help the NHS overcome some of its biggest challenges, from increasing demand to skills shortages – but embracing change requires a fundamental shift in thinking.

It’s no secret that the NHS is under immense pressure to keep up with increasing demand at the same time as coping with dwindling resources.

In diagnostic services, for example, demand is increasing by 7% annually, and 20% of all pathologists are expected to retire in the next five years.

Neil Mesher, CEO of Philips UK and Ireland, says: “It is simply impossible for the NHS in its current form to support increasing demand with limited resources.”

Technological solutions don’t always mean replacing humans

Technology has the power to address pinch points in the system, which would not only overcome the challenges faced by the NHS, but improve outcomes overall, says Mesher.

The key was augmenting the skills of healthcare professionals to bring about a wholesale change in how services were delivered.

“Many people call ‘AI’ ‘artificial intelligence’, and immediately think about replacing human beings with robots.

Tech must be integrated to support clinicians

We prefer a people-centric approach and that looks at how to best support the NHS’s highly-trained medical professionals with the power of machine learning. We call this ‘adaptive intelligence’.

Mesher describes that as a collection of intelligent and integrated tools that embed into workflows and adapt to the needs of clinicians.

“It’s about using technology to provide the right information to healthcare providers and to quickly identify patterns in a way that best supports those needing care.”

Pathologists, for example, spend hours upon hours looking at potential colon cancer tests, knowing that 75% will be negative. Yet it is possible to train an AI algorithm to ‘rule out’ those samples, leaving physicians free to concentrate on the 25% of images more in need of their time.

Adoption needs acceleration across the NHS

The barrier to implementation, however, isn’t building the technology or even proving its worth, but the almost glacial speed of adopting new ways of working.

Mesher described the NHS Innovation Accelerator, which supports the national spread of innovation by sharing best practice and creating a pre-approved list of tech providers, as ‘very exciting’.

But, he went on, it didn’t go far enough to bring about the wholesale redesign of services and workflows needed to truly embrace what AI and other technology has to offer.

Technology plays a role, but healthcare providers also need to be agile in how services can be designed, located and delivered, so as to make the best use of innovation.

“As a country, we have a huge opportunity here. We have four of the world’s top 10 universities focusing on life sciences, we’ve got huge NHS data sets and we have a world-leading position when it comes to AI,” says Mesher.

That window of opportunity, though, will not last forever. If it is not seized upon soon, the UK could lose its place at the forefront of the med tech revolution and all its potential healthcare system benefits. The time to act, he concluded, is now.

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