The government has announced its third successive hand-out to the NHS in as many days with a pledge by Boris Johnson of £250m to be invested in artificial intelligence.
The prime minister claimed AI would transform care and cut waiting times as he announced the money for a national artificial intelligence lab, to work on digital advances to improve the detection of diseases by predicting who is most likely to get them.
However, health experts warned that the NHS had a poor record with technology and any new systems would need “robust evaluation” to ensure they did more good than harm as well as proper implementation with safety standards and training. They also raised concerns over where the money was coming from and whether it was the result of trade-offs elsewhere in the cash-strapped health service.
AI is already being used in some hospitals to predict cancer survival and cut the number of missed appointments. It is used to identify those patients most likely not to turn up, who will then be given a reminder phone call.
On Tuesday, the prime minister promised £1.8bn towards the maintenance and rebuilding of crumbling hospitals, estimated to need a total of £6bn. On Wednesday, he promised changes to a pension tax hitting the best-paid doctors and nurses that has resulted in their cutting back on extra shifts. The latest announcement would help the NHS become a world leader in AI, he said.
Johnson said the NHS was “leading the way in harnessing new technology to treat and prevent, from earlier cancer detection to spotting the deadly signs of dementia”.
“Today’s funding is not just about the future of care though. It will also boost the frontline by automating admin tasks and freeing up staff to care for patients,” he said.
The health secretary Matt Hancock, an AI enthusiast who has his own eponymous app, said the NHS was “on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly predictive, preventive and personalised health and care service”.
The new money was cautiously welcomed by health experts, with caveats. Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation thinktank, said: “Technology needs to be driven by patient need and not just for technology’s sake. Robust evaluation therefore needs to be at the heart of any drive towards greater use of technology in the NHS, so that technologies shown to be effective can be spread further and patients protected from any potential harm.”
He also said clarity was needed “on where this money will come from and whether there may need to be trade-offs”, adding: “Despite the extra capital funding pledged this week, there remains a £6bn maintenance backlog for supporting basic infrastructure, including IT equipment, of which over £3bn is identified as ‘high or significant risk’.
“And with a shortfall of 100,000 staff, the NHS will struggle to sustain current services, let alone take advantage of the benefits of new technology.”
Matthew Honeyman, a researcher at The King’s Fund health thinktank, said: “Many staff in the NHS currently feel that IT makes their life harder, not easier. Rolling out new technologies like AI will require standards to ensure patient safety, a workforce equipped with digital skills, and an upgrade to outdated basic NHS tech infrastructure.”
The NHS England chief executive, Simon Stevens, said “carefully-targeted” AI is ready for practical application in the health service and that the investment “is another step in the right direction”.
He added: “In the first instance, it should help personalise NHS screening and treatments for cancer, eye disease and a range of other conditions, as well as freeing up staff time, and our new NHS AI Lab will ensure the benefits of NHS data and innovation are fully harnessed for patients in this country.”