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How machine learning, drones, and robotics will transform the NHS and healthcare Posted on : Mar 15 - 2019

The UK's National Health Service continues to suffer the longest funding squeeze since it was established 71 years ago. That financial pressure has resulted in the service missing targets for how soon cancer patients should be referred for treatment for the past three years and waiting times in Accident and Emergency departments being at record levels.

Such is the financial and staffing pressure on the service, that talking about how recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) could be applied to the NHS might seem fanciful.

Yet Professor Tony Young, national clinical director for innovation at NHS England, believes healthcare is at an inflection point, where machine-learning technology could fuel huge advances in what's possible.

"I think that healthcare is heading for one of those giant-leap moments in the next five to 10 years and AI is going to be a key tool in enabling us to take that giant leap," he said, speaking at an event in London organized by The King's Fund and IBM Watson Health.

Young highlighted technologies ranging from drones to robotics being considered for or used in the NHS, all of which take advantage of recent breakthroughs in machine learning – a field of AI.


One of the first companies to win FDA approval for an AI algorithm, according to Young, offers a system that scours images from CT (Computerized Tomography) scans of the brain for signs of damage following strokes.

"When you've got a regional stroke center you might say, 'Which CT do I need to look at first?', and you'll work your way through the pile, but there's someone in there who you could save their brain if you intervened now."

The system helps triage the scans, highlighting to doctors those patients who need urgent treatment, says Young.

Like much machine learning-powered technology in healthcare, Young says the company behind the system was co-founded by a doctor, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London.


Microsoft is working with doctors at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge to train machine-learning algorithms to spot brain tumors in 3-D magnetic-resonance-imaging (MRI) scans.

By training the systems on MRI scans where tumours have been highlighted, the system can learn to pick out high-grade gliomas, tumours of the glial tissue within neurons in the brain, and to do so with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Young says such approaches will help radiologists to more rapidly identify scans that need following up on, "taking a very human-intensive process of planning in the radiotherapy field and actually supercharging that radiologist so that they can do several of these maps a day". View More