Blending human intelligence with AI: our digital NHS of the future

WITH Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust creating several NHS and European firsts thanks to its pioneering use of artificial intelligence (AI), Cindy Fedell, Chief Digital and Information Officer and Senior Responsible Officer for the West Yorkshire and Harrogate Digital Programme, discusses the movement into a new digital age

IN THE few seconds it takes you to read this paragraph, somebody somewhere in England is benefiting from the digital innovations that are being brought to life across our NHS in ever-increasing numbers.

You may think we are a light year away from the world of Star Trek and advanced technology. Yet when you look back, you may be amazed at how much we already have in place today, turning science fiction into fact.

Who among us would have thought just ten years ago that we would be routinely using robots to carry out surgery on prostate cancer patients?

The unprecedented digital opportunity that lies in front of us is real life, here and now. And thanks to the home-grown talent that exists among our people, we are witnessing significant uptake of it – and not just by those of us who have a soft spot for sci-fi or technology.

As we propel ourselves into this new digital era, the speed with which it will bring about transformational change to every aspect of healthcare – from cradle to end-of-life – is only going to gather pace.

It spearheads the NHS Long Term Plan, a vision which is already being accelerated by the pledge of £250m to create an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab.

But, in the race to embrace this potential, how do we ensure that we unlock the full benefits of these innovations successfully, speedily and – above all – safely so they make a difference to people’s lives?

Here in Bradford, working as one team has been key – pooling the skills and insight of our clinicians, data scientists and our technology partners at the earliest stage.

Digital champions

We’ve also harnessed the insight of our patients, recruiting “digital champions” to ensure we deliver advancements in the way people want and need them.

We demonstrated this when we broke new ground this summer by appointing the first Head of Clinical AI in the NHS – one of our ICU doctors.

Too often, we’ve seen a system that is brimming with world-class technology in the incubator, but which isn’t fit-for-purpose in a hospital setting because those behind it hadn’t engaged with clinicians.

For us, that means drawing upon the experience of our clinicians to pinpoint first where the needs are, and then working with our AI partners to design a  solution – the tech, the process and the people together.

A good example of this in action is the launch of our Command Centre to improve the way we plan and manage patient flow across our hospitals, especially amid winter pressures.

Another first for both the NHS and Europe, think of it like an air-traffic control system but for a hospital – marrying human intelligence with artificial intelligence.

It is a solution expertly tailored for our own needs, developed hand-in-hand with GE Healthcare Partners, showcased at the recent Health and Care Innovation Expo to more than 5,000 visitors.

This approach has also spawned new ideas for us to pursue – such as turning to AI to predict with greater accuracy the length of stay for patients as soon as they are admitted.

More efficient

AI can’t create physical hospital beds but it can tell you when you are likely to need beds and when there is to be a likely spike in demand which will allow our workforce to be more efficient with the resources that we do have.

It’s also important to remember that AI’s fundamental role is helping doctors and nurses to make the right decisions – not to take over from them, or replacing clinical judgement.

So too is recognising that AI is still in its relative infancy in global healthcare –it’s reported only 6% of organisations are using it, and 60 per cent are still trying to understand it.

Against that backdrop, we must ensure any AI is subject to scrutiny and adheres to the highest patient safety standards, and it is encouraging to see more researchers, including our own researchers at the Wolfson Centre, turning a much-needed focus on this so our digital journey does not race ahead of the evidence-based research we need to underpin it.

When the NHS was created in1948, Health Minister Nye Bevan said to succeed, “it must always be changing, always improving”.

Fast forward 71 years to today, and the digital opportunities within our grasp offer the best possible opportunity of ensuring that happens – but we always need to retain that human touch.

Enjoy your day – and please don’t spend too much time in front of your computer or phone screen!