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Artificial intelligence is to be used to tackle racial inequalities in the NHS under government plans to “level up” healthcare.
It is hoped that millions of black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons will benefit from revolutionary computer techniques designed to transform care and speed up diagnoses of potentially deadly conditions.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has given the green light to a series of hi-tech initiatives aimed at tackling health disparities in the UK. It comes amid mounting concern over the issue among senior ministers.
New projects include drawing up fresh standards for health data inclusivity amid fears that the datasets at the moment fail to adequately represent people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Another project will use computer algorithms to investigate factors behind adverse maternity incidents involving BAME mothers. The results could lead to recommended changes, which could include new training for midwives and nurses. Black women are five times more likely to die in the UK due to complications during pregnancy compared with white women.
Javid said he was committed to “removing barriers” in the NHS so that “every one of us, no matter our background, can live healthier, longer lives”.
Experts have warned for years that some people from BAME communities have poorer health than the overall population. More recently, the pandemic took a disproportionate toll on these groups.
Evidence also suggests that structural racism can lead to BAME patients suffering poorer health outcomes. Reports have found “deep differences” in the prevalence and outcome of some health conditions between and within ethnic groups in the UK.
Javid said: “As the first health and social care secretary from an ethnic minority background, I care deeply about tackling the disparities which exist within the healthcare system. As we recover from the pandemic we have an opportunity for change, to level up, and ensure our NHS is meeting the needs of everyone.
“Technology, particularly AI, can be an incredible force for good. It can save valuable clinician time and help provide faster, more accurate diagnosis, so patients can access the care they need as quickly as possible. It can also help us better understand racial differences so we can train our workforce to look for different symptoms or complicating factors, diagnose faster, and tailor treatments.”
Javid expressed personal dismay at the racial inequalities in healthcare. “It is unacceptable that black women in England are five times more likely to die from complications during childbirth than their white counterparts. AI could help us to better understand why this is the case and ensure black mothers have an equal chance for a healthy life with their newborn.”
The drive to tackle racial inequalities using AI will be led by NHSX. Its AI Ethics Initiative aims to support research and practical interventions using AI-driven technologies in health and care, with a focus on countering health inequalities.
Another project being funded involves an AI-powered chatbot to raise the uptake of screening for STIs/HIV among minority ethnic communities.
A fourth involves improved computer screening to detect diabetic retinopathy. Recent analysis suggests performance varies significantly between different ethnic groups because people from ethnic minority groups have higher levels of retinal pigmentation which can influence image quality.
Javid said one of the most important new AI initiatives would be updating UK health data to more accurately reflect the population.
“If we only train our AI using mostly data from white patients it cannot help our population as a whole. We need to make sure the data we collect is representative of our nation. This new funding will support the development of a much-needed set of standards to make sure datasets for training and testing AI systems are diverse and inclusive so no one is disadvantaged because of their race,” he said.
Josh Keith, a senior fellow at the Health Foundation, a thinktank involved in the initiatives, said: “Data-driven technology is having a profound impact on our health and health care system, but we need to focus on making sure the impacts are positive so that everyone’s health and care benefits.
“We hope the projects being supported through this partnership can make an important contribution to this – helping to ensure the advancement of AI-driven technologies improves health outcomes for minority ethnic populations in the UK.”
Brhmie Balaram, head of AI research and ethics at NHSX, said: “Artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionise care for patients, and we are committed to ensuring that this potential is realised for all patients by accounting for the health needs of diverse communities.”