The NHS is a miracle. Not because it’s perfect, but because it works as well as it does within some incredible constraints.
It’s not just the financial pressures and staffing shortages — serious though these are — it’s also the tools and technologies that support health professionals. Smartphones have changed the way we shop, bank and play, and yet critical patient data is still stored and communicated via reams of paper, pager systems from the eighties, and fax machines.
The impact is real. One in ten patients suffer harm during their treatment, half of which are preventable, and the research shows that information failures account for a substantial proportion due to miscommunication and delayed diagnoses.
The amazing thing is that answers are all right here in front of us, and are being suggested every day by patients and clinicians who know exactly what tools and technology they need. It’s building these tools that’s the hard part — and that’s where we hope to make a difference.
In July 2015, a number of the NHS’s leading kidney specialists approached DeepMind about Acute Kidney Injury (AKI), which ranges from minor loss of kidney function all the way through to dialysis, transplant, and even death. They also told us that more than a quarter of the 40,000 AKI deaths per year are entirely preventable, if only there were a better way to detect it in its early stages — and that this had now become a national NHS priority. As a British technology company founded by people who have relied on the NHS all our lives, we saw this as a huge opportunity to make a difference.
So, over the past few months, we’ve worked with doctors and nurses at the Royal Free London on a prototype mobile phone app designed to get critical information about AKI patients direct to nurses and doctors faster. The app is still in the early prototyping stage, but we’re hopeful that it could one day help save the lives of patients across the NHS. This is a relatively straightforward tool that, to be honest, should have been built long ago — but we believe it’s a first step towards more advanced techniques that could make an even bigger difference to the NHS.
DeepMind specialises in artificial intelligence, building computer programs that teach themselves to find patterns and correlations in complex data that human brains struggle to find. This kind of research, especially a particular technique known as deep learning, is now ready to be applied in the real world. We’re working with clinicians at the world-renowned Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to investigate how this could help analyse and understand eye scans to make better and earlier diagnoses.
We’re researching conditions like age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, which together affect more than 625,000 people in the UK and over 100 million people worldwide — and in which speed matters. If you’re diabetic you are 25 times more likely to suffer some kind of sight loss, but with early detection and treatment 98% of severe visual loss can be prevented.
Whether we’re helping clinicians provide day to day patient care with mobile apps or making breakthroughs in medical research, work in health requires data. Treating this data with respect really matters. There are different authorities that give different types of approvals and oversight for NHS data use: HSCIC, HRA, MHRA, ICO, Caldicott Guardians, and many, many more. We’re committed to working with all these groups, and making sure with their help that we get it right.
In this work, we know that we’re held to the highest level of scrutiny. DeepMind operates autonomously from Google, and we’ve been clear from the outset that at no stage will patient data ever be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services. We’ve also asked a group of respected public figures to act as Independent Reviewers, to examine our work and publish their findings. We want to earn public trust for this work, and we don’t take that for granted.
Everywhere we look, technology is driving progress — from communication, to games, to food delivery. But the real test of British technology has to be whether it can tackle the biggest challenges facing our society today. In a spirit of partnership with the UK’s clinicians, hospitals and regulators, that’s what we’re going to try to do with DeepMind Health.