Chief clinical information officers didn’t even exist in the NHS a decade ago. Now they have become some of the most influential people in the health service, having a very visible and positive impact on strategic thinking within their own trusts, across regions and even nationally.

The exponential rise of the CCIO has been a response to the urgency to make digital adoption a success in the NHS – a fundamental requirement for the health service to remain sustainable and to deliver the best and safest care possible for patients.

As artificial intelligence applications continue to emerge, offering the NHS the ability to tackle serious challenges and deadly illnesses, many of these individuals will undoubtedly have a keen interest. But can CCIOs, many of whom already have clinical commitments alongside their focus on delivering core digital clinical systems, also be expected to lead on AI adoption?

The rise of the NHS CAIO or CCAIO?

Some industries have already started to recruit chief artificial intelligence officers. The argument to justify the creation of similar roles in the NHS – whether that means an AI counterpart to CIOs or CCIOs – is growing. This rapidly developing area needs a dedicated focus.

Healthcare AI champions are in fact already starting to emerge. One developer, Aidence, which provides AI to automatically detect, classify and track the growth of pulmonary nodules on chest CT scans, recently stressed at an AI showcase event that AI champions have become their key route to engaging with hospitals – including the NHS.

2019’s Topol review has also encouraged new education and training for healthcare professionals around AI. Importantly, it stressed that the NHS will need to be competitive to recruit and retain highly demanded AI talent, and that clear career pathways must be created for AI specialists, where they are seen as valued members of clinical or clinically led academic teams.

Some AI specialists in the NHS are starting to appear from within specialities. At a recent diagnostic AI conference, I met a trust’s radiology AI lead who was focused on identifying new applications to improve the effectiveness of his department. But it is notable that though he had a detailed understanding of what could help radiology, he was far less aware of what was happening in other parts of the hospital – including pathology.

So, the idea of AI champions in the NHS isn’t new. But is the emergence of this function happening in a coordinated way? Could a CAIO or CCAIO align AI strategy across patient pathways, and across the enterprise, and start to prioritise how trusts use AI in a more joined-up strategic way that addresses organisational and even national NHS objectives?

The AI is ready – but is the NHS?

Mature AI applications focused on helping to improve the rapidity and accuracy of diagnoses of specific and serious illnesses are continuing to develop. Often built based on deep learning and a ground-truth of millions of diagnostic images, many of these applications are ready to help the NHS tackle urgent local and national clinical priorities.

Algorithms now exist that could help the NHS bridge the reporting gap needed to meet NHS Long Term Plan ambitions around early cancer diagnoses, for example.

Applications can proactively identify illnesses not even being searched for, and can help healthcare professionals to more quickly make the most appropriate treatment decision for patients with time critical conditions such as strokes.

Sectra is already working with a wide number of AI developers to allow NHS trusts already using our technology to directly access these types of AI algorithms through their existing picture archiving and communication systems and enterprise imaging platforms. And we are carrying out due diligence around these developers from a business perspective.

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But while vendors have a responsibility to be open, and to enable hospitals to access integrated AI tools, we can’t make the final decision on which specific applications will best solve the clinical requirements of individual trusts. For this the NHS needs people in place to judge the clinical efficacy of these applications, to assess whether this works in clinical practice, and to do all of this with an enterprise understanding of trust processes, pathways and priorities.

AI technology in itself is not the challenge – but the NHS needs people with the authority to drive AI applications into clinical settings where they are accepted, where they can make a difference to patient outcomes and working lives, and where they can meet organisational needs.

Board level influencers with an enterprise view

Calls to elevate CIOs and CCIOs to the board level are finally being heard in the NHS. But for a CAIO or CCAIO to help deliver the impact of AI to the NHS frontline, they too need to have an enterprise level of authority.

NHS AI champions need to sit at the board level to influence the direction of travel for AI as a core component of trust strategy. With a trust-wide view of priorities, these individuals can help ensure AI is delivered in a coordinated approach in line with the needs of their population. Many trusts are now looking to move their imaging approaches across the enterprise to cover multiple ‘ologies’, and AI could be managed in a similar way.

With the authority of a board position, these individuals could start to break down barriers, open trusts to vendors, and assess the potential in the market to address what their organisation needs – not just what one department may need.

And crucially, with the right authority and influence, these individuals can educate the NHS that AI is here and that it can make a meaningful difference to the ability of the health service to affect outcomes and save lives.


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