Digital NHS

Data and AI projects to help NHS tackle winter crisis

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Sixteen rapid research projects have been awarded £800,000 to use existing health data records and artificial intelligence to help the NHS address winter pressures.

These projects have been launched by Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) with funding from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR).

One of the projects would use AI to "digitally mimic" households struggling with the impact of the cost of the living crisis to understand the effects of cold homes on health, while another looks at helping reduce ambulance wait times. 

Other studies also include using hospital data to speed up patient flow through emergency departments, as well as using machine learning to predict peaks of infection with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – a common bug that can cause serious illness in young children.

The 16 projects were selected in December 2022 and are expected to deliver findings by the end of March.

Despite the tight deadline, the findings of the projects would not come in time to help tackle the current winter crisis in the NHS, which has been facing extraordinary pressure against the backdrop of a pay dispute with the government.

Large numbers of flu and Covid cases, a huge backlog exacerbated by the pandemic, and mounting wait times for ambulances and emergency and routine care are some of the additional challenges that the NHS has to contend with during the winter months. 

“As a doctor who has previously treated patients in the emergency department, I am all too aware of the enormous challenges faced by the healthcare system this winter," said Professor Cathie Sudlow, chief scientist at HDR UK. “It’s critical that we use data rapidly, securely, and responsibly to support the NHS, its workers, and the patients who rely on it for their care.

“By using existing data, research teams, and infrastructure these projects are able to respond rapidly to evolving pressures on the NHS.”

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said the goal was to channel "the spirit of innovation" that led to the rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines, with the government providing £800,000 in funding.

Barclay added that the government is taking immediate action to respond to NHS pressures by investing an additional £200m to "get medically fit patients out of hospital quicker".

“We are also spending £50m to ease congestion in hospital emergency departments by expanding discharge lounges, where patients can relax while waiting for relatives or friends to take them home, and ambulance hubs," he said. 

These investments would come on top of the £500 million Discharge Fund announced in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement for cutting bed occupancy, reducing ambulance handover times and increasing capacity in social care.

Each of the projects has been partnered with analysts in the Department of Health, which sponsored the plans; the Office for National Statistics; and the UK Health Security Agency.

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