The future of AI in healthcare

By Keisha Bullock-Singh, Junior Consultant

The relationship between health and technology is not new by any means, with years of growth in this area already resulting in digital health monitoring, medical virtual reality and 3D printing for prosthesis, amongst other developments. This year, however, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come to the forefront of technology, including through the rise of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, but also due to the investment being made in AI to further healthcare. As machine-generated intelligence continues to thrive, what does the future of AI in healthcare look like?

Reducing the backlog

In March the government announced an investment of nearly £16 million in AI healthcare research, including for systems to run cancer checks, diagnose rare diseases and identify women at highest risk of premature birth. The funding, which was awarded to nine companies, aims to help tackle the current challenges being faced by the NHS, particularly the severe delays to diagnosis and treatment.

At a time when one in ten A&E patients face a 12-hour wait for staff to deal with their concerns, this investment in health technology, with its potential to reduce the NHS backlog, is welcomed by a government consistently under fire for delays to health services. Discussing how cutting waiting lists is one of the government’s “top five priorities”, Health Secretary Steve Barclay highlighted how ground-breaking technology like AI can play a vital part in this – although this has not stopped the minister from facing criticism from the public for pooling funding into new technology, rather than staffing.

Widening healthcare disparities

The increased use of data-driven technologies, like AI, comes with challenges however, including potentially worsening healthcare outcomes for patients from minority ethnic groups. This includes, for example, AI algorithms creating risk scores that evaluate how likely a patient is to develop certain diseases in the future, which largely exclude patients from minority backgrounds due to it being[BP3]  created using data sets based on white participants.

This is one example of the numerous ways in which advancing technology can be damaging to healthcare outcomes. It is particularly worrying, given the already wide health disparities faced by minority ethnic patients in the UK, with a recent report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee examining the poor treatment black mothers receive, compared to their white counterparts. It is crucial that when developing AI tools based on health data it reflects the diversity of the patients it aims to help as not doing so could ultimately result in life-or-death consequences.

AI and health abroad

When reflecting on what the UK’s use of AI in healthcare might look like in the future, we should also examine the use of technology for health treatment and diagnosis in other countries.

France is arguably a leading example of a nation embracing technology to further healthcare after French medical device company Carmat SA released the very first artificial heart to be developed and approved by a regulatory body, whilst Quantam Surgical, another French health tech company, used robotics to treat and operate on patients suffering from liver cancer.

Israel is also at the forefront of health and technology, with the country having a $6.2 billion medical technology market, in addition to being known for repurposing military technology for use in its medical innovation. Furthermore, as evaluated by Dr Axel Heitmueller, the Managing Director of Imperial College Health Partners and a Cabinet Office analyst, Israel is a leader in the development of AI technologies and application of them for health systems.

What next?

The latest opinion polling indicates that Labour will win by a 49% landslide against the Conservative’s 26% in the next general election – but what does this mean for the future of healthcare and technology?

In an announcement last year Labour pledged to deliver a 10-year plan for change and modernisation of the NHS, with Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting stating that “delivering better outcomes for patients will depend on modernisation”. Streeting also emphasised Labour’s understanding of how investment combined with reform delivers result – highlighting the party’s forward-looking view. 

As such, given the current government’s investment in ground-breaking technology for health services and Labour’s ambition to reform the NHS through modernisation, the future looks bright for AI powered healthcare. With AI transformations taking on average between 18 and 36 months to complete, however, we may be in for a bit of a wait...

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