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24th February 2017

The NHS needs a digital healthcare revolution

Artificial intelligence is just one of the ground-breaking technologies that could transform NHS healthcare

A unified health care system to take care of an entire nation, especially one as large as the United Kingdom, often seems like a Herculean task. To have over 60 million people to go through one, more or less, centralised system, often when facing life-threatening situations, often delays people from getting the help they need as they need it.

Endless bureaucracy, outdated technology, internal politics (and the constantly changing actual politics out of Westminster), as well as a vast administrative burden all contribute to various inefficiencies affecting public health care. As the nation’s population ages, and the cracks in the health care system become more apparent, urgent change is necessary to ensure that the health of the nation is not put at risk.

The political capital needed to make these changes is often not there, with special interests fighting to get politician’s ears, and other pressing matters almost always arising. Since even modest reforms to the system get criticised vehemently, politicians often do not take the burden upon themselves to address the NHS, instead hailing praise upon it and moving on to other things.

Luckily, recent advances in Artificial Intelligence, specifically Deep Learning, are kick-starting a revolution in health care that requires no political manoeuvring. British companies such as Babylon Health, and the recently Google-acquired Deep Mind, are racing to bring modern technology to the NHS, adding to the efficiency of its procedures.

One of the major hurdles to effective treatment is the time and technology constraints to providing patients with the care they need. Doctors, having been booked solid all day and working in a high stress environment, are not given the opportunity to spend as much time with patients and provide them with adequate counsel.

Other issues such as the number of staff necessary to maintain scheduling, and the tremendous costs to the system of individuals failing to turn up for their appointments add to the various impediments to adequate care.

Babylon Health’s two apps available for free download begin to address some of these issues. Their own machine learning powered consultant asks patients to answer a series of questions about their medical needs, and having been trained using a plethora of medical data, provides advice on next steps.

Their subscription service also offers virtual doctors appointments, reducing the need to book appointments and go to a physical location. This ease is not only more convenient, but helps to identify the seriousness of issues, and speed up the processes for those in most need.

In conjunction with the NHS, they have also released a 111 app for non-emergency cases. Powered by the same underlying technology, it provides advice to patients and speeds up appointment bookings through an online scheduler. This system, though in its trial phases currently, has the potential for allowing patients to schedule, change, and cancel appointments more easily, allowing for greater allocative efficiency of doctor’s times. Simultaneously, such consultations allow for a reduced need to visit doctors, as there may be simple over the counter remedies that the patient would be recommended instead.

Deep Mind Health, another London based company, is working with the NHS to use their Artificial Intelligence systems to aid in specialist medical diagnosis such as Head and Neck Cancers, and Eye Diseases. By using these technologies, the potential to greatly reduce the potential for misdiagnosis and accidental deaths is within reach.

These new technologies provide the infrastructure to further improve the quality of offering to the near million patients who use the NHS every 36 hours.

For all its failings, serious internal reform to the National Health Service is a difficult task. Luckily, innovation and entrepreneurship are driving businesses and technologies that can offer radically improved care within the current framework.

The accidents and avoidable deaths within the UK are at astonishingly high levels, but advances in medical technology can aid in reducing these ills and will dramatically improve the quality of care on offer.

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