Every major hospital would analyse scans using AI under Labour plans to double NHS diagnostic capacity and cut heart deaths by one quarter, the shadow health secretary pledged on Sunday.
Wes Streeting has spent a week exploring the Australian healthcare system under plans to create health policies which learn from the best international practice.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Streeting said stroke services in this country were in an “appalling” state, by comparison.
He said the NHS needed to urgently embrace technology in order to improve patient care and boost productivity, saying it was necessary to be “brutally honest” about the poor state of the health service now in order to secure its future.
Global league tables show Australia’s heart and stroke services are decades ahead of those in the UK, with death rates for both conditions around half of those in Britain for those admitted to hospital.
Much of this is down to the use of diagnostics to make speedy assessment of conditions where time is critical to limit oxygen loss that causes brain damage.
Australia is second only to Japan for capacity of MRI, CT and PET scanners – with 88 per million population.
Meanwhile, the UK languishes at the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) league tables – with just 19 per million people.
Critically, Australia also uses its equipment differently.
Across the state of Victoria, AI is used to analyse stroke scans in every hospital, small or large – ensuring the patients in need of clot-busting treatment are quickly identified and fast-tracked.
Following a visit to the service’s command centre in Melbourne, Mr Streeting pledged to introduce the same technology across the NHS as part of efforts to speed up diagnosis and treatment of killer diseases.
‘UK is lagging decades behind’
He told The Telegraph it was “inspiring” yet “maddening” to see health services overseas making routine use of technology which could dramatically improve performance, while the UK lagged decades behind.
“When you look at where we are in England, not even 50 per cent of stroke patients seen within four hours, when we know ‘time is brain’,” he said.
He said the model being used across the Australian state proved that AI and machine learning could result in a speedier and faster response.
Under such systems, AI can provide a first analysis of scans, which is then checked by a radiologist.
Traditional methods involve two radiologists, with one used to give a second opinion.
At the Labour party conference in October, Mr Streeting promised a doubling in capacity of MRI and CT scanning equipment within the first term of a Labour government.
On Sunday, Mr Streeting made a further commitment, saying every hospital in England will be obliged to ensure that their new kit is compatible with AI, so that scans can routinely be analysed using the technology.
“All of those scanners will be AI-enabled so that we give staff access to the cutting-edge equipment they need to give patients the very best care they deserve,” he said.
Mr Streeting said swift action was required to allow the UK to catch up with medical advances that can save lives and prevent disability.
The stroke service in Australia’s state of Victoria began piloting the use of “rudimentary” AI to analyse stroke scans in 2003.
“I think we are decades behind and for 13 years now this government has been asleep at the wheel,” the politician said.
Mr Streeting said Labour’s pledge to cut deaths from heart disease and stroke by one quarter in their first term, if they win the election, relied on the NHS maximising efficiency and making the best use of its workforce.
He said meetings with health officials in Australia had brought home the failure of Britain’s national health service to make use of the advantages of having one single system, which should allow quicker adoption of new technology and medical advantages.
“So many people in Australia have said how we have real advantages because we have a national model, where they have federal systems to navigate – and yet we just don’t make proper use of it, whether that is in efficiencies in procurement, or adoption of new tech,” he said.
“I think the NHS can once again be the envy of the world. But we’ve got to be brutally honest about where we are today and about the scale of the challenge ahead. And my optimism about the future is tempered by the realism that it is going to take a decade to deliver the reform and improvements to health and social care that I want to see,” he said.
During his week in Australia, Mr Streeting had a number of meetings with Labor politicians past and present – including Mark Butler, the current health secretary, and Paul Keating, the former prime minister.
Labor won the election in May of last year, having failed to secure victory in 2019, when many in the party had thought it a foregone conclusion.
‘Only promise what you can deliver’
Mr Streeting said his party had a lot to learn from the Australian experience.
“I think the lesson from Australia is clear for the UK Labour Party; which is to only promise what you can deliver. Keep your focus on the priorities of the country and under-promise, over-deliver,” he said.
In particular, he said Labour should resist “the siren voices” pushing the party into high spending, which taxpayers could ill afford.
“I think that it’s particularly crucial at a time when money and trust in politics is in short supply – and that’s why we’re not going to be blown off course by the siren voices tempting us to crash into the rocks with promises that are too expensive, promises that we can’t keep, or priorities that don’t reflect the priorities of the country,” he said.
He said a Labour government should not increase the proportion of state spending devoted to health – which already takes 44 per cent of Government funds, saying this is “money that could go back into taxpayers’ pockets”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “A key part of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, which is backed by over £2.4 billion in funding, focusses on the use of technology to reform how the NHS works and builds on the progress made by the NHS already to embrace innovations in technology.
“In 90 per cent of stroke units across England, cutting-edge AI tools are supporting clinicians to treat patients that present with stroke more quickly, halving the time to get treatment and tripling the chances of patients living independently following a stroke. The AI in Health and Care Award has made £123 million available to accelerate the most promising technologies for health and social care, benefitting over 300,000 patients.
“By harnessing the latest technology, we can save staff time, reduce repetitive administration tasks and help speed up potentially lifesaving treatment – and will save the NHS nearly a million working days a year.”