The NHS is an institution that enjoys unparalleled support from the British public. It has ensured the health and recovery of billions in its lifetime and continues to touch the lives of many. However, it is in trouble. There are many reasons for its ailing status and many potential solutions – but what role could AI play?
The NHS at Present
As globally renowned as the NHS is, its present state does not reflect the world-leading nature of its prior contributions to medicine and healthcare. According to the King’s Fund, the NHS faced its longest-ever squeeze on funding in the aftermath of the 2009 banking crisis, with government NHS spending increasing by 1.5% per year in real terms – less than half the long-term average increase.
The stunted funding of the NHS during this time saw difficult decisions being made with regard to infrastructure and administration, while the incidence of multiple once-in-a-generation events like the Covid-19 pandemic placed direct pressure on facilities. Today, significant backlogs remain, and waiting lists for care balloon; those that do receive treatment are concerned at the prospect of medical negligence, which risks increasing against falling standards.
All the while, diligent and hard-working NHS staff across roles and facilities have seen their pay fall in real terms, well below pay rates for the same roles in the run-up to the banking crisis. Historic strike action has occurred in an attempt to redress the balance, with junior doctors and paramedics amongst others striking for pay parity and better institutional conditions. But this alone cannot rectify years of underfunding, and the threat of increased negligence risk to patients.
The AI Revolution
The development of AI, then, is fortuitous timing. The AI revolution has begun in earnest, with tech organisations across industries pouring their efforts into research and development of machine learning technology, which has already begun to disrupt numerous sectors. The use cases for AI are boundless, and their usage in healthcare could be transformative for patients and for medicine at large.
This suggestion is not born of theory or speculation, either. Headway has already been made in key areas, with pilot schemes and innovative inventions paving the way for a bright future in UK healthcare. For example, AI systems are being developed to screen patients and perform basic diagnosis where appropriate, simplifying primary care and ensuring complex cases are forwarded to the right teams as a priority.
The NHS is also the first institution to pilot AIAs (Algorithmic Impact Assessments) in the world; AIAs ensure that AI architecture remains ethical and practicable within the NHS, putting patient health and outcomes first.
AI and the Future
Where previously, adopting new medical technologies would require significant NHS expenditure, AI technologies are set to become much cheaper in the longer term. As such, entrusting AI tools with core processes and certain levels of healthcare can greatly minimise the operating cost of the NHS, hence improving the overall quality of care and ensuring it can thrive.