The NHS is turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to help predict upcoming demand for intensive care beds and ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic across England.

Trials of the predictive system, known as the COVID 19 Capacity Planning and Analysis System (CPAS), began today at four hospitals. It harnesses the principles of machine learning – algorithms that find and apply patterns in data – to provide statistics, forecasts and simulation environments to the NHS to better plan resources during the pandemic.

For example, predictions made by the machine learning system could inform a hospital that capacity will be reached in advance, giving it time to bring in extra resources or share capacity with neighbouring hospitals.

If CPAS proves to be accurate, the NHS will look to roll it out across the rest of the country.

“CPAS allows individual hospitals to plan ahead, ensuring they can give the best care to every patient,” said NHS Digital chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Benger.

“At the same time, the wider NHS can ensure that the ventilators, other equipment and drugs that each intensive care unit will need are in place at exactly the time they are required. In the longer term, it is hoped that CPAS can be used to predict hospital length of hospital stay, discharge planning and wider intensive care demand in the time that will come after the pandemic.”

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By GlobalData

AI coronavirus system uses “personalised data”

CPAS has been developed by NHS Digital data scientists and a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge. The system, built around a machine learning engine called Cambridge Adjutorium, has been trained with “depersonalised” data provided by Public Health England.

“Although the system uses data from individuals to build its models, the system does not make treatment decisions about individual patients,” said Professor Mihaela van der Schaar, who developed CPAS along with her team at the University of Cambridge.

“Rather, by aggregating that data we can make more accurate predictions about larger groups, at the level of a hospital, a trust, a region or nationally. So while we can say with a high level of confidence that 30 out of 40 ITU beds in a hospital will be occupied next week, we are not trying to predict which patients will be in them.”

The UK has over 120,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and has reported more than 16,000 deaths. If CPAS proves successful, NHS Digital may export the AI system to other countries and will explore using it post-pandemic to help manage hospital resources.

“Covid-19 is a terrible disease that has torn families and friends apart, brought the UK to a virtual standstill, and upended the lives of countless healthcare workers,” said van der Schaar.

“But if we can use projects like this to strengthen collaboration and lay the foundations for a stronger digital infrastructure in healthcare, we can emerge from this pandemic even stronger.”

Read more: Vodafone app turns your phone into a coronavirus-fighting supercomputer