Theresa May will pledge millions of pounds of government funding to develop artificial intelligence able to transform outcomes through early diagnosis of cancer and chronic disease.
In a speech in Mansfield on Monday that is being billed as the first of a series on industrial strategy, May will say: “Late diagnosis of otherwise treatable illnesses is one of the biggest causes of avoidable deaths.
“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.”
May wants industry and charities to work with the NHS to develop algorithms that can use patient data and lifestyle information to warn GPs when a patient should be referred to an oncologist or another specialist.
The plans envisage at least 50,000 people being diagnosed at an early stage of prostate, ovarian, lung or bowel cancer each year.
It is thought that AI could help prevent 22,000 deaths from cancer each year by 2033, and give patients an additional five years of healthy, independent life by 2035.
The NHS has amassed a huge and valuable collection of data from its universal cradle-to-grave service. Very few other providers have access to comparable data.
The government believes internet companies that are used to very large-scale data analysis could take a mix of genetic and medical data to produce algorithms able to swiftly generate information for a GP.
But the proposal would also include allowing commercial firms access to NHS data for profit, raising controversial questions about the ethics of data sharing, privacy, and making money from a public asset. The prime minister anticipated the risk of opposition in her Davos speech in January, when she spelt out plans for a council on data ethics.
Although the figures are steadily improving, the UK has less good outcomes for common cancers such as bowel, breast, ovarian and prostate cancer, than most other comparable economies.
Campaigners blame funding shortages, but research by the King’s Fund also found that hugely increased demand also played a key role in making it increasingly hard to meet targets.
According to the health thinktank, the 18-week referral-to-treatment standard for planned care has not been met since February 2016, and the 62-day cancer standard for more than three years. There are also concerns about staff shortages delaying test results and diagnosis.
A Downing Street spokesman said the plan was a long-term investment. Digital strategies that could speed diagnosis and accuracy would lead to earlier and cheaper intervention. Late intervention is often invasive and expensive and ultimately unsuccessful.
Sir Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, welcomed the announcement. “If this infrastructure enabled us to reduce late diagnosis by half in the next 15 years, then for just four types of cancers – lung, bowel, prostate and ovary – 22,000 fewer people each year would die within five years of their diagnosis.
“Our goal is that three in four people will survive their cancer by 2034 and we support efforts that will help us achieve this ambition.”
The government’s industrial strategy is based on incentivising technological innovation. Over £1.4bn has been invested in research and development to support the Grand Challenge programme.
There are four Grand Challenges reflecting global trends. They include artificial intelligence and the data economy; clean growth; healthy ageing; and the future of mobility. So far investment has been put into reducing domestic energy consumption and better building methods, work on improving the health of the ageing population, and the Faraday battery challenge to improve energy storage.