RCR response to Prime Minister’s grand challenge on artificial intelligence for early diagnosis

Monday 21 May 2018

Speaking at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics in Macclesfield earlier today, Prime Minister Theresa May praised the UK’s rich science and innovation heritage and unveiled the key missions of the Government’s Modern Industrial Strategy.

The Royal College of Radiologists (RCR) strongly welcomes the Prime Minister’s challenge to industry and the health sector regarding the development of artificial intelligence (AI) to revolutionise the early detection of disease, and is calling for improved access to ‘big data‘ and appropriate AI testing and standardisation.     

RCR President Dr Nicola Strickland said:  

“The importance of the Prime Minister‘s challenge to the UK healthcare sector and technology industry cannot be overstated.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to transform early diagnosis and massively improve the treatment pathways of thousands of patients, and we have an array of brilliant AI projects already in development across the UK. However, to realise that potential and have AI make a widespread difference in clinical practice as quickly and safely as possible, it is crucial that algorithms and machine learning programmes are robustly tested, as well as properly regulated.

“For that vital testing to happen, interested doctors, researchers and industry need to access the best building blocks to train AI systems, which means accessing a very large amount of electronic information, known as ‘big data’. In response to Mrs May, we want Government to go a step further and help AI developers access NHS big data in a safe, anonymised way, as well as enabling a mechanism for the non-commercial testing of AI software before it is used on patients to make sure it is accurate and safe.

“The UK is suffering chronic shortages of radiologists and clinical oncologists – doctors who are fundamental to early disease detection and cancer treatment – and while we know computers will never replace the nuanced clinical expertise and empathy of a human doctor, AI stands to have a huge, positive impact on the workload of increasingly overstretched medics. Radiologist and clinical oncologist doctors welcome the prospect of being able to use AI in their everyday practice to enhance the quality of healthcare they are able to provide for their patients.

“The RCR is committed to the future of AI in our two medical specialties and we fervently want to see its development vigorously supported by good access to training data and the ongoing input of practising doctors. As an independent, professional body responsible for training and standards in UK radiology and non-surgical oncology, the College is both prepared and extremely keen to guide the development and much-needed standardisation of AI in our specialist areas and act as ‘honest broker’ between industry, researchers and the NHS.”     

The Government announcement is especially timely for the RCR as last week the College hosted its own stakeholder summit to directly address the key issues affecting AI development in its specialties.