The UK government has announced a major new fund for AI-powered diagnostic tools.
Public hospitals will offer for a share of $26 million for AI products that can help diagnose problems like heart disease, cancer and stroke more efficiently.
While chatbots and image generation may be better known, AI is considered a promising technology in healthcare. British ministers awarded $20 million for AI research in healthcare earlier this year as part of a multi-year competition.
Software that can help identify diseases on radiological images has been available for some time and is a rapidly growing product area.
In the UK, it is hoped that this kind of technology will help hospitals to tackle major backlogs in care.
The country has fought a years of shortage of radiologists, with areas like breast health under particular pressure. The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has dramatically increased waiting lists in the country’s healthcare system.
Investing in tools that reduce the reporting burden on clinicians – without compromising safety or accuracy – should help hospitals get results to patients faster and accelerate treatment initiation when needed.
Lung cancer is a major focus for the country’s government-funded National Health Service (NHS), with early detection leading to much better patient outcomes.
Ministers hope that AI will be particularly useful for detecting them on X-rays, more than 600,000 of which are performed every month.
But this kind of software is not a panacea for restoring 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 according to think tank King’s Fund notes that the UK lags behind many of its peers in the sheer number of MRI and CT scanners available to hospitals.
The government has been investing in high-tech imaging equipment during the past years. But, as the report’s authors say, “the UK has a lot to make up for” both in terms of supply and the condition of its equipment.
The NHS’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, said in a statement that the public health system was already using AI to “catch and treat bigger illnesses earlier, and better manage waiting lists so patients can be seen more quickly”.
The funding increase, he added, was “another example of how NHS continues its proud history of applying the latest proven technology to provide better care for patients and greater value for taxpayers.”
Dr. Katharine Halliday, President of the Royal College of Radiologists said it was critical for the country to “embrace innovation that could increase capacity”.
“All doctors want to give patients the best possible care,” she added. “This starts with timely diagnosis and, crucially, catching disease at its earliest stage. There is tremendous promise in AI, which could save clinicians time by maximizing our efficiency, supporting our decision-making and helping identify and prioritize the most urgent cases.”
Commenting on the funding announcement, Rory Deighton of industry organization NHS Confederation, said AI “has the potential to transform prevention and increase early detection as well as the treatment of disease.”
But to use the technology effectively, the NHS would need to ensure “there is a focus on cross-system collaboration, transparency and appropriate data sharing between healthcare, adult social care and public health,” he added.