Monday 7 January 2019 8:11 am

Britain needs to step up to win the global AI healthcare race

Lord Drayson is former science minister and chief executive of Sensyne Health.

At this time of year, the news is invariably gearing up for a season full of stories about a crisis in hospital care.

But away from the headlines, Britain is on the brink of a real global health success story – one we must capitalise on in 2019.

It’s no stretch to say that the UK is already leading the way on the use of medical technology, from the Versius robotic surgery system to the Libre diabetes patch worn by the Prime Minister herself.

Health secretary Matt Hancock recently set out his belief that “with the right tools in the NHS, we can improve people’s lives”. I share that optimism.

But healthcare technology is about more than robots and apps, valuable as they are. It’s about harnessing the power of patient data using artificial intelligence (AI) to drive innovation that transforms patient outcomes.

We are on the cusp of the data revolution. The potential for AI to improve care and assist hardworking clinicians is immensely exciting.

Using machine learning to read and interpret vast swathes of patient information can help with diagnosis, flag risk factors, assist prevention, and expedite drug discovery – all tasks that will be vital to the NHS in future, as well as progressing towards delivering personalised healthcare,

The value to the taxpayer of this data is not yet captured by government accounts. At present, knowledge assets account for just two per cent of total government assets, according to the Treasury, suggesting that many types – like health data innovation – are unreported or undervalued.

Given that, for publicly listed companies, knowledge assets account for 50-80 per cent of their total value, the value held by the UK government could be up to £1 trillion.

Healthcare AI is at the heart of this – but we can’t assume that the UK will continue to reap the benefits unless we take steps to maintain these assets for ourselves.

Although we have the comprehensive datasets and AI expertise to start unlocking the benefits, we are not the only ones trying to crack data-driven healthtech. Global companies, from Google in the US to Tencent in China, are eyeing partnerships with the NHS and UK healthcare providers.

Given the breadth and depth of the dataset from the NHS, I can’t blame them.

The UK’s health dataset is unique – it’s the biggest and most comprehensive in the world. Our NHS number connects our data from birth to death.

But the issue is scalability. How does the NHS access the investment required to interrogate the patient data at scale?

The London markets can provide much-needed capital and expertise to develop this important public asset. But any structure has to directly benefit the ultimate owners of this asset: British citizens.

We need to recognise NHS data for the national strategic asset it is, offering immense value to clinicians and researchers.

With that as the starting point, R&D, data analytics, and any clinical benefits should all be contained within the UK. The NHS should derive direct financial as well as clinical benefits from the use of the data, and companies deriving commercial benefit should pay for it.

My company works in partnership with the NHS, giving hospitals an equity stake and revenue share from discoveries. We see it as essential that the country reaps the benefits of this work.

But not every company operates that way, and that’s the question for 2019: do we want to make the most of this incredible resource for the benefit of the UK?

I’m not suggesting that we go as far as China, which, to realise its explicit goal to dominate in AI by 2030, has started imposing restrictions on data exports and forcing citizens to share their data.

However, if the UK is to lead the world in healthcare AI, we need to ensure that we are driving innovation and that our health service is reaping the benefits.

As we head into a new year, I’m excited by what healthtech can offer and hopeful for where we will be on this journey in another 12 months.

Hancock has made the use of data one of his top priories for healthcare innovation. New bodies like the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will help get policy right on AI, and the health secretary is also considering how to ensure that commercial models in the NHS work in the interests of patients and taxpayers.

Nevertheless, there’s a risk that Britain fails to realise the future potential of healthcare AI by not taking the necessary steps now.

As we head into 2019, the government needs to make safeguarding the UK’s burgeoning healthcare AI sector a top priority.


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