NHS will use AI to improve COVID-19 treatment and shorten hospital stays

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The UK’s NHS (National Health Service) will use AI to help improve the outcome for COVID-19 patients and reduce their time spent in hospital.

While the UK’s vaccine rollout is among the fastest in the world – certainly in comparison to its European peers – a series of late lockdowns and initial lack of PPE equipment has put the health service under immense pressure and left the country with one of the highest COVID-19 deaths rates per capita.

The latest lockdown was imposed after ministers were warned the NHS would collapse within a few weeks, leaving Britons unable to access care for any reason. Paramedics have already reported patients dying in ambulances queued outside of hospitals and research from King’s College London suggests around half of ICU staff are suffering from PTSD and problem drinking due to the scenes they’ve witnessed and pressure they’re under.

NHSX, the digital innovation arm of the health service, is now providing access to the National COVID-19 Chest Imaging Database (NCCID) to hospitals and universities across the country to help speed up the diagnosis of the virus and help to reduce the pressure on the health service. 

Clinicians at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge are developing an algorithm based on the NCCID images to help inform a more accurate diagnosis of patients when they present to hospital with potential COVID-19 symptoms and have not yet had a confirmed test.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said:

“The use of artificial intelligence is already beginning to transform patient care by making the NHS a more predictive, preventive, and personalised health and care service.

It is vital we always search for new ways to improve care, especially as we fight the pandemic with the recovery beyond. This excellent work is testament to how technology can help to save lives in the UK.”

The ability of clinicians to identify the virus in its earliest stages greatly increases the chance that interventions will prevent a progression to severe complications which require longer stays, extra resources, cause more suffering, and will inevitably lead to further deaths.

Carola-Bibiane Schönlieb, Professor of Applied Mathematics and head of the Cambridge Image Analysis group at the University of Cambridge, explained:

“The NCCID has been invaluable in accelerating our research and provided us with a diverse, well-curated, dataset of UK patients to use in our algorithm development.

The ability to access the data for 18 different trusts centrally has increased our efficiency and ensures we can focus most of our time on designing and implementing the algorithms for use in the clinic for the benefit of patients.

By understanding in the early stages of disease, whether a patient is likely to deteriorate, we can intervene earlier to change the course of their disease and potentially save lives as a result.”

Beyond COVID-19, the AI tools being developed are expected to help spot signs of other conditions. A ‘national AI imaging platform’ is being explored to help spot things such as cancers and heart disease in their earliest and most treatable forms.

A £140 million AI award has been established this year in collaboration with the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC) and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to speed up the deployment of AI technologies to benefit patients and staff across health and care.

Dominic Cushnan, Head of AI Imaging at NHSX, commented: “The industrial scale collaboration of the NHS, research and innovators on this project alone has demonstrated the huge potential and benefits of technology in transforming care.”

(Photo by Grooveland Designs on Unsplash)

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