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Innovation is only as good as the system in which it operates – reflections on the 2020 Intelligent Health conference

MV’s Umar Majid reflects on February’s Intelligent Health Conference in London – asking what we can learn from the best innovations in AI technology being implemented in the NHS.

Technology driven innovations are the supposed gateway to more effective models of care. But there’s a problem. It seems we’ve become really good at the ‘making technology’ bit but we’re not so good at getting people to actually use it in practice.

This month’s Intelligent Health conference in London was a showcase of the latest AI technology being piloted in the NHS, and there was much excitement in the progress being made.

Examples at the conference showed both how simple and how complex digital solutions can be.

An auto-planning tool being piloted in Leicester aims to solve the famous ‘travelling salesman’ problem – that is, what is the shortest possible route a salesman can use to visit each city and returns to the origin city? Or in this case what is the shortest route clinicians can use to visit all call-out patient appointments and be back in clinic in time for their next surgery?

In London, a cutting-edge piece of software can use the phone in your camera to identify all malignant lesions to a 100% sensitivity, demonstrating the power of AI and its ability to match the accuracy of clinical specialists.

These examples prove that when the technology works it can be game-changing, and it is just a matter of time until the NHS is capitalising regularly on new capabilities like the above to the benefit of all patients.

But, what struck me the most was how often tech companies and NHS Trusts described the challenges of sustaining change. The requirements around up-to-date hardware and interoperability are well documented in the NHS. But the issues being described were downstream from those obstacles. We all know change is hard – hard to manage and hard to sustain – but for change as revolutionary as AI that challenge seems even greater. Delivering and sustaining any transformation is not easy. And the irony of AI? It requires people.

MV’s years of experience across the public sector has taught us that any change, however desirable or technical, requires a human touch. Often this cultural component of change is passed over too quickly. The problems usually begin when tech companies finish their six-week project to implement a new piece of software and staff are left on their own to continue using it. The result: a low return on investment as staff revert to old ways of working or move on to next week’s priority as they struggle to meaningfully integrate the new piece of technology.

So, exactly how do you get the outpatient booking administrator to change the way patients are scheduled after 15 years on the job? It is all about culture change.

So when reflecting on the Intelligent Health Conference, my overriding piece of advice is don’t rush it. Too many transformation projects fail due to inadequate planning or focusing on the wrong part of the change process – AI in the NHS is no difference.

Implementing change is one thing. Making it thrive is altogether different.

If you would like to comment on this article or discuss how we can help you, contact umar.majid@mutualventures.co.uk.

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