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Health Secretary takes aim at AI critics and declares war on NHS bureaucracy

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 29, 2020
Matt Hancock has this week said that it is a false choice to prioritise ‘fixing the plumbing’ over ‘forging ahead’ - he states that the NHS should be doing both.

Image of Health Secretary Matt Hancock and nurses

Although in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has still found time to take a swipe at the critics opposed to his plans for technology investment in the NHS and has also said that he plans to tackle bureaucracy across the health service. 

Over the past 12 months or so Hancock has been doubling down on his strategy to improve the use of technology across the NHS. As Health Secretary he has launched a new technology strategy, established a new central digital unit (NHSX), launched a £250 million AI Lab and introduced spend controls that he hopes will drive change. 

However, critics have expressed concern that Hancock and the government are rushing ahead with modern technologies, whilst forgetting to fix the plumbing. He said that these “techno-pessimists are wrong”. 

The Health Secretary disputed these claims this week, stating that it’s possible to do both - and that by not investing in new technologies, such as AI, patients will be worse off. He said:

If you work in the NHS, in any part of the service, far too often old, out-of-date 20th century technology gets in the way of your ability to do your job.

So I completely get why some people think now is not the time to be talking genomics, automation and AI. But I respectfully disagree.

Because that’s a bit like saying that we shouldn’t explore space when we’ve got climate change to deal with on earth. Which sounds attractive until you consider that much of our knowledge about climate change is beamed down from satellites.

The point is that sometimes the cutting edge can help us solve those bread-and-butter problems and move us to a new generation of solutions. You might even say the cutting edge is the breadknife.

Hancock said that better technology is directly linked to investing in and retaining staff, saving money and patient safety. 

He went on to give an example of how most NHS Trusts want to move their past and current health records in a modern, structured electronic form, so that they can easily look things up and make use of the data. However, this is often a time consuming and expensive process. 

Hancock said that it “doesn’t have to be like this” and a team at King’s College University have built a natural language processing tool called Costack AI, which can perform manual coding and data collection tasks in a tenth of the time it takes a human analyst. 

Hancock said:

Technologies like these have potential to save millions in the cost of coding and analysing data.

There’s huge medical research potential in getting this right too.

It’s a clear example of the latest AI helping us fix the basics, because once you’ve coded up and digitised your patient records, you can start to solve fundamental problems, like how to share those records across different parts of the NHS.

Tackling bureaucracy 

Hancock also took time to lay out his tech plans for the NHS more broadly - focusing on three core elements: structures, scalability and leadership. Most of his comments focused on things we’ve heard before, such as the creation of NHSX, making better use of data, moving NHS information to the cloud, and turning NHS technology leadership into a ‘recognised and respected profession’. 

However, it seems that Hancock may have been receiving guidance from the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, who has made his intentions clear about reducing the amount of ‘bureaucracy’ in Whitehall. 

Hancock made a call to those that feel like they’re being hindered by bureaucracy in the NHS, stating his intention to get rid of as much of possible. The Health Secretary said: 

And we’re working across the whole health and care system to bust bureaucracy and modernise the rules that prevent the use of 21st century technology.

Let me just say a bit about this bureaucracy busting, because it’s important. Institutions like NICE, the MHRA, the GMC, the NMC, the Royal Colleges, local authorities and the CQC – they all play a critical role, and I’m setting them the task of ensuring their rules, processes and ways of working are up to date.

It’s about adapting to new technology but that’s just part of it – it’s about busting bureaucracy across the board, and I want to hear from anyone who’s experienced it.

We want to bust the bureaucracy and we can only do it by listening to those burdened by bureaucracy right now.

Hancock added that this also applies to data collection, which he describes as a ‘personal bugbear’ and ‘far too burdensome’. He said that useful data is best collected in real time, from the management systems that are used locally to run the services. 

My take

I’m not sure Hancock will have convinced the nauseas with his speech, I still see plenty of GPs, healthcare professionals and technology leaders in the NHS commenting on how they struggle to log on to their computers in the morning, let alone worry about AI. But, to be honest, it’s too soon to judge. NHSX and the AI Lab are just getting going and we are yet to see much evidence of centralised change. The Healthcare Secretary needs to be transparent about work being done and highlight the outcomes achieved. Technology projects across the NHS have an extremely chequered past and a lot of work will need to be done to convince those that have been burned previously. 

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