Matt Hancock is right to identify NHS systems reform as a major priority. Too many ambitious politicians have seen only the downside risks of major infrastructure updates. Overspends, compromises on privacy and safety, and project management failures are enough to end a ministerial career.

The prize is a health service where different clinicians can understand a patient’s needs; can easily see, for instance, if someone admitted to A&E has an allergy to penicillin, or that a patient has confounding medical conditions that complicate their treatment.

But there are further prizes that will be unlocked – not by officials in the Department for Health and Social Care, but by partnerships between researchers, the higher education sector, clinicians, NHS Trusts and the private sector: prizes that will ultimately be unlocked through breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

The applications of AI in healthcare are starting to become well-rehearsed: AI is already used by pharma companies to expedite drug discovery, statistically identifying promising compounds for clinical trials, and AI image recognition helps clinicians diagnose tumours in scans. Healthcare companies want to scale-up these breakthroughs to benefit patients and NHS Trusts, use it to identify treatment variations in complex conditions, or to better understand the progress of long-term illnesses like dementia. But companies want to be able to use NHS data in a way that respects confidentiality and patients’ privacy, and the NHS wants to be able to realise the value of the datasets it already has.

Which is why it’s encouraging that as well as the hard but important work that Matt Hancock has prioritised on improving NHS IT systems, his ministerial colleague Lord O’Shaughnessy is working on creating the right regulatory infrastructure to enable ethical innovation in health.

Alongside its consultation on a new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the Department of Health has this week published a Code of Conduct for data driven technologies. As we heard in our Lex Health breakfast briefing from Lord O’Shaughnessy in May, central to his approach is the idea that the NHS and taxpayers must get a good deal on future partnerships with technology companies. At our later event in July, Dr Indra Joshi, NHS England Clinical Lead on Digital Health and AI, reiterated the point that collaborative working was needed across Government departments, industry and academia, to ensure that the right frameworks are in place to develop trusted and safe innovations in an open and transparent way.

The UK has an almost unique opportunity to be a world leader in this field: it has NHS datasets – vast and longitudinal but largely unstructured and uncurated – it has world class universities churning out STEM PhDs and, thanks to Matt Hancock, has a Government committed to doing the hard but necessary work on NHS IT infrastructure.

Victoria Crawford recently joined Lexington as an Associate. Victoria has over 15 years’ experience in politics, government and broadcast media. She has been a Special Adviser in three government departments: the Department for Transport, the Department for International Development and the Department for Education, has worked in both Westminster and European Parliaments, and is a former Producer for ITV and international television network CNBC. She currently works with a number of clients in the health, transport and tech sectors and is studying coding and Data Science.

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