Theresa May announces plans to use artificial intelligence to help diagnose cancer and save 20,000 lives a year

Steven Swinford
Theresa May, the Prime Minister - AP

More than 20,000 lives will be saved every year under plans to use artificial intelligence to diagnose cancer patients before their symptoms have even developed, Theresa May will announce.

The Prime Minister will challenge the NHS to use artificial intelligence and other "smart technology" to improve the diagnosis of prostate, ovarian, lung or bowel cancer.

The plans will see the NHS cross-reference people's genetic information, medical records and "habits" such as whether they smoke to identify those who are most at risk from cancer. 

It will "empower" doctors to refer those patients identified as being at risk to an oncologist even before the onset of symptoms, leading to 22,000 fewer cancer deaths by 2033.

Speaking in Macclesfield, the Prime Minister will say: “Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths.

“And the development of smart technologies to analyse great quantities of data quickly and with a higher degree of accuracy than is possible by human beings opens up a whole new field of medical research and gives us a new weapon in our armoury in the fight against disease. 

“Achieving this mission will not only save thousands of lives. It will incubate a whole new industry around AI-in-healthcare, creating high-skilled science jobs across the country, drawing on existing centres of excellence in places like Edinburgh, Oxford and Leeds – and helping to grow new ones.”

The plans have been supported by Cancer Research UK, which said that the Government's plans to "revolutionise" healthcare using artificial intelligence are "pioneering".  

Sir Harpel Kumar, the charity's chief executive, said: "Earlier detection and diagnosis could fundamentally transform outcomes for people with cancer, as well as saving the NHS money. 

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"Advances in detection technologies depend on the intelligent use of data and have the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. We need to ensure we have the right infrastructure, embedded in our health system, to make this possible."

The Prime Minister will also suggest that artificial intelligence can be used to help diagnose chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and dementia.

A recent study has shown that using artificial intelligence to analyse retinal scans, which are carried out routinely as part of eye checks, can help predict people's risk of heart attacks and strokes.

 Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Accelerating research using health data and artificial intelligence will build on the UK’s reputation for cutting-edge science, and lead to transformative improvements in treating patients within the NHS.  

"For example, there is promising evidence that using artificial intelligence to analyse MRI scans could spot early signs of heart disease which may be missed by current techniques. This could lead to a quicker diagnosis with more personalised treatment that could ultimately save lives.

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“Through investment in innovation  we will also accelerate the adoption of new data-led technologies, for instance  to detect and monitor conditions like atrial fibrillation, diabetes and high blood pressure, all of which significantly increase the risk of a deadly heart attack or stroke.”  

The Prime Minister will also announce plans to give people five more years of healthy life by 2035.