Technology enthusiasts believe we are on the verge of a new era in healthcare, driven by the power of intelligent, data-crunching machines. Artificial intelligence (AI) used to be the stuff of science fiction novels and futuristic films, where it was often portrayed as a sinister development. But times have changed. The speed with which virtual assistants and other smart applications have become a fixture in our homes suggests that many of us are ready to embrace machines that can learn like humans and perform useful tasks.

It remains to be seen whether this tolerance will extend to the adoption of AI in hospitals and general practices. There is no doubt that the technology will have a significant impact on the delivery of care in the coming years, with the government recently announcing the investment of £250 million to set up a new Artificial Intelligence Lab for the NHS. However, public acceptance is one of several practical, legal and ethical challenges that still confront policy-makers, health organisations, technology companies and clinicians.

Dr Farzana Rahman is ideally placed to consider these issues. As well as being a co-author of Artificial Intelligence in Healthcare, a report by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC) focusing on the likely impact of AI for doctors and patients, Farzana is a consultant radiologist, a speciality which is at the centre of several diagnostic AI projects.

'There is a huge range of tools in development that are capable of diagnosing and risk stratifying medical images, although they are not yet in widespread clinical use,' she says. 'In the UK, for example, there is the Moorfields-DeepMind Health collaboration which uses ophthalmology data to develop an AI algorithm that can assess retinal OCT scans for signs of disease. And new AI tools are being demonstrated each year at the Radiological Society of North America Conference in Chicago.'

Other UK-based AI projects include chatbots such as 'Ask Oli', which has been designed to reassure and interact with young patients at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, and the Babylon GP at Hand service currently being trialled in the NHS. Meanwhile Great Ormond Street Hospital has been trialling the use of an AI-enabled bodysuit to learn more about movement decline in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Benefits

For Farzana, one of the great potential benefits of AI will be the opportunity to streamline the diagnostic process so over-stretched doctors have more time to spend with the patients who are most in need. 'There is an AI project in the US that focuses on the mental health of veterans,' she explains. 'Based on the data in medical records, they have created an algorithm that predicts those at highest statistical risk of suicide. And they found that by doing the job at scale, psychiatrists could spend more time with those who were most vulnerable, instead of doing risk assessments for everybody.'

Initiatives like this are a reminder that there is a global dimension to the development of AI tools in healthcare. 'The technology shouldn't just be seen within the microcosm of UK, Europe and US,' Farzana insists. 'There are huge inequalities when it comes to accessing healthcare resources around the world because a lot of the technology and skill is concentrated in a small number of countries. AI tools that help do things at scale will have a hugely important role in improving global access to healthcare.'