BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 16: A nurse tends to recovering patients on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital on March 16, 2010 in Birmingham, England. As the UK gears up for one of the most hotly contested general elections in recent history it is expected that that the economy, immigration, industry, the NHS and education are likely to form the basis of many of the debates. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson said the NHS was leading the way in harnessing new technology © Getty

The National Health Service will become a world leader in using artificial intelligence to improve healthcare, with 5m people offered a free personalised report based on their DNA, the government has said.

In the latest in a flurry of health announcements designed to underline the Conservatives’ commitment to the NHS under prime minister Boris Johnson, the government said it would allocate £250m for a National Artificial Intelligence Lab “to build cutting edge treatments for cancer, dementia and heart disease”.

Officials, hit by a row earlier this week over the origin of an extra £1.8bn for infrastructure spending, described the latest tranche as new money from the Treasury.

The new lab will sit within NHSx, a unit that has brought together experts from the NHS, the health department and industry to oversee the digitisation of the health service.

The NHS was leading the way in harnessing new technology to treat and prevent disease “from earlier cancer detection to spotting the deadly signs of dementia”, said Mr Johnson. But the new funding was not just about the future of care “It will also boost the frontline by automating admin tasks and freeing up staff to care for patients,” he added.

The announcement included a promise that 5m people will be given a free personalised health report based on their DNA so that diseases can be detected even before people experience symptoms.

Pre-dating Mr Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street, this Accelerating Detection of Disease programme was first announced last month by Theresa May. The project will be funded separately from the AI Lab, with businesses and charities expected to jointly invest up to £160m, alongside a £79m government investment, to support research, early diagnosis, prevention and treatment for diseases including cancer, dementia and heart disease.

Matthew Honeyman, a researcher at the King’s Fund, a think-tank, welcomed the announcement but said many NHS staff “feel that IT makes their life harder, not easier”. “Rolling out new technologies like AI will require standards to ensure patient safety, a workforce equipped with digital skills, and an upgrade to outdated basic NHS tech infrastructure,” he said.

Rejecting suggestions that the AI Lab would wind up in a war for talent with higher-paying technology companies, officials said that, rather than competing with them, the aim was to work with the best tech companies, academics and researchers to test, develop and build new systems, treatments and products.

The high-profile commitment to AI comes on the back of a long-term plan for the NHS, released in January, that emphasised the importance of earlier detection of disease to save millions of lives.

The health department said the AI Lab could improve cancer screening by speeding up the results of tests, including mammograms, brain scans, eye scans and heart monitoring. It would also use predictive models to estimate future needs for beds, drugs, devices, or surgeries, as the NHS seeks to make the best use of overstretched resources.

As the health service seeks to move more care out of hospital to ease strain on wards, AI could help to identify which patients could be more easily treated in the community as well as those most at risk of both serious diseases and post-operative complications, the department said.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, said: “We are on the cusp of a huge health tech revolution that could transform patient experience by making the NHS a truly predictive, preventive and personalised health and care service.”

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