AI advances will help 'liberate' the NHS, says Digital Minister Margot James

Posted On: 
3rd October 2018

The NHS could be ‘liberated’ by advances in AI, Digital Minister Margot James has said. 

The Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries Margot James said that the UK could become the world leader in healthcare if it harnesses the benefits of new AI technologies in the health sector. 


Speaking at a fringe event on the opportunities of AI, sponsored by KPMG, the Minister substantial dataset gathered by the NHS over five decades had given the UK a competitive edge in driving new approaches to technology assisted healthcare. 


“I think the effect on employment in the health service will be incredibly positive,” she said. 


“I think it will boost productivity. The vast amount of data at the NHS’ disposal going back to the 1950s is the reason why we will undoubtedly be world leaders in AI and health as long as certain conditions are met. 


“But it is already happening, there is a joint venture between Moorfields Eye hospital and one of the deep data companies that is now responsible for diagnostics for glaucoma becoming more accurate and far swifter than ever an eye surgeon or ophthalmologist could repeat.” 


Margot James argued that not only would these advances help revolutionise how NHS staff worked, it would also have knock-on effects for other government departments. 


“It is already happening and this will liberate consultants and surgeons, who let us not forget, take about 10 years to train if not longer, to perform more interesting work and more surgery 


“In terms of deploying mixed realities to be able to perform surgery remotely, think of what that will do for overseas aid policy. It is absolutely fantastic what can be done.” 


“As long as the principles are set… which will give the NHS the guidance it will need to share that data with a company that is going to improve treatment, care, diagnosis and management of millions of patients all over the world in the end, then I have no doubt we will achieve this.” 


Shamus Rae, Head of Digital Disruption at KPMG, agreed with the ambitious vision set out by the minister. 


“Can we be number 1 for health technology and health AI in the world? Yes we can,” he said. 


“We’ve got a cradle to grave health system, we’ve got a bunch of consumers out there who trust the NHS more than any other organisation in the country. So we have a perfect triad if you like; we’ve got great researchers, a great health system and consumers of that health system that trust the NHS. 


And he urged the government to be transparent with consumers about how their data was being used - a move which he argues will make it more likely for patients to give consent for their information to be used to develop new models and technologies. 


He said: “What we can’t do is ignore and play on the trust of those consumers of health by just giving that data away to one of the big internet companies… but we give away our health data already.  


“We should be doing that through the digital hubs which are being suggested, and create data hubs to go with it”, he added. 


But Shamus Rae argued that the positive benefits from AI technologies would only be fully realised if a positive case could be made to the public. 


“We should also get both government and companies like KPMG as well as independent research organisations to start changing the tone of the conversation,” he said. 


“We need to change the tone of the conversation away from job losses and towards seeing this as a major opportunity for the UK. And actually without doing that we won’t get the right engagement from people. 


“If we can get the data, change the tone of the conversation and get data zones created up and down the country, so it is not just a London, Cambridge economic answer, but a countrywide economic answer, then we’ve got a real opportunity to create a whole ecosystem of AI start-ups in the health space.” 


While the panel recognised the gap between the current IT systems and the possibilities of future projects, Shamus said it was important to focus on the positive aspects of AI. 


“I am tired of the dystopian utopian argument about if we are all going to lose our jobs. Well that headline was in the New York Times in 1957, talking about AI. So it has been around for a long time.  


"I do think this time is different...but if we spend our time arguing about dystopia/utopia we are going to end up in dystopia. So what we need to do is focus and be proactive to go for utopia.”