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Shortly after he was appointed, Ian Hogarth, the UK’s AI tsar, stated that alongside the risk of AI being used to carry out a biological attack on the UK, the biggest threat on his team’s radar was AI being used to attack the NHS’s IT infrastructure.

Preventing a catastrophe like this is rightly being prioritised by the AI Safety Institute, but on the flip side, not enough attention is being paid to how the NHS should embrace AI. The NHS AI Lab sits within the NHS Transformation Directorate, and is dedicated to testing new technologies and collaborating with AI technology companies. In addition, there are AI leads across the NHS working on local or specialised integration of technologies into everyday care. However, the scale of the transformative potential of AI across all spheres of health means it requires greater focus.

We are missing an important opportunity here to realise the scale of the positive difference AI can make to the NHS and to join this up with our national AI strategy. An AI tsar for the NHS is desperately needed to lead a national AI strategy in health, prioritising the workstreams that are underway to ultimately speed up embedding AI appropriately and safely into the health service. 

AI is already transforming healthcare. Clinically, it is being used in supporting healthcare professionals to diagnose and triage patients. AI will enable precision medicine, by being used to analyse large datasets to help tailor treatments faster, based on a patient’s genetic makeup. 

As well as these clinical applications, evidence is growing around the benefit of using AI in other aspects of medicine – areas that existing AI strategies don’t cover. The 151-page NHS Long Term Workforce Plan barely mentions AI, but it has the potential to transform the NHS workforce in the same way it is transforming diagnostics and personalised medicine. 

The NHS has been slow to introduce novel technology for non-clinical uses. As a clinician in the NHS, people are often shocked to hear how much we still rely on pen and paper. Real-time feedback from frontline workers collected through digital platform ImproveWell has shown that NHS staff want digital solutions – simple measures suggested by them, like digitising staff rostering so they get more flexibility in choosing shifts, has been shown to contribute to improved retention. 

If a concerted effort was made to use not just digital tools, but specifically those powered by AI to help management teams prioritise, the impact could be enormous. AI platforms are being developed to manage the backlog and prioritise waiting lists, saving time and potentially saving lives by helping clinicians identify the most urgent patients – an almost impossible task when waiting lists are so long.

And AI is being used to analyse ImproveWell’s datasets, enabling teams to quickly identify the most promising ideas and challenges most frequently reported by frontline staff, and spot characteristics that make ideas successful when it comes to improving quality of care, morale, and retention. 

In the longer-term, we also need to plan for the challenges that AI will bring for the non-clinical part of the NHS. The future of NHS administrative roles looks very different if progress in AI in other sectors is replicated in healthcare, and the talent pipeline should reflect the changing needs of those roles. 

We should look to other sectors and nations for examples of how technology and AI have been integrated holistically into systems. ​​In the US, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was created to ensure the States was at the forefront of innovation, and not surprised by it. It recruits people at the top of their field for short stints in government agencies to continuously bring in external perspectives and the latest thinking. In a field as fast moving as AI, it’s important to bring in talent from the private sector and their insights. 

Whichever way it is addressed, it’s critical we are proactive in both defending the NHS from AI’s threats and integrating it across the whole system to benefit from it. This will not only help the UK keep pace with advances in other comparable countries, it could also go a long way in solving some of the NHS’s current and pressing crises.

By Dr Na’eem Ahmed, Chief Medical Officer and Co-Founder of ImproveWell

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