Dr Ross Upton, Founder and CEO of Ultromics, a health technology firm using artificial intelligence (AI) to support clinicians with rapid diagnosis of cardiovascular disease, discusses how new AI initiatives from the NHS will support doctors.

The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the NHS to its limits this year, putting extreme pressure on an exhausted health service coping with already limited resources. The NHS faces a difficult period over the coming months, with the added threat of seasonal flu and a huge backlog of patients waiting for diagnosis and treatment.

Fostering AI innovation

Part of the answer to these challenges will lie in innovation. Fortunately, advances in AI technology are being rapidly adopted – some in a matter of weeks – that will help support doctors during these challenging times. Last month, the NHS released its ‘AI in Health and Care Award’, a £140 million grant to fast track a selected number of AI companies into UK hospitals, as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.

The initiative will have a transformative effect in the healthcare industry and demonstrates a meaningful commitment to ensure the NHS keeps pace and evolves to meet predicted and – as far as possible – unknown challenges ahead. As part of this £140 million grant, Ultromics’ AI heart disease analysis, EchoGo, is being adopted into NHS hospitals from October 2020. As one of the award’s first winners, we hope Ultromics will be a real game-changer in helping accelerate the acceptance and adoption of AI across hospitals, and improving outcomes in cardiovascular disease patients.

A significant consequence of Covid-19 has been the growing number of patient backlogs from missed appointments, including cancer, heart disease and other serious health issues due to fear of coming to hospitals – presenting a worrying future healthcare crisis of missed and untreated conditions. Medical professionals are warned that the backlog of patients could reach millions by December, and so the pressure is on to find a more efficient way of working. The adoption of AI tools across healthcare is arguably the best way to achieve this.

AI solutions can take away many of the mundane aspects involved in the day-to-day clinical pathway – which contribute to long waiting times – helping doctors see more patients, and faster, while giving them back time to spend with patients and improve outcomes. 

The argument for adopting new tools becomes even more compelling when faced with the well-known fact that demand for health care is growing across nearly all disease areas.

Heart disease is still the number one global killer and there are 2.3 million people living with some form of the disease in the UK alone. Since Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold and lockdown measures were imposed across the country in Spring, there has been a 57 per cent spike in new cardiovascular disease (CVD) patients, from on-set and worsening heart problems due to an increase in causative factors such as stress, anxiety, obesity, and physical inactivity. It is projected that demand for cardiac care from 2013 to 2025 will grow by almost a fifth (18 per cent), while the number of cardiologists will remain roughly the same.

Time saving and life saving

One example of AI’s value in cardiology lies in its ability to provide rapid and accurate analysis of ultrasound scans – the most widely used tool for diagnosing heart disease. Typically, when an ultrasound is performed, doctors spend time on analysis software to interpret scans – this takes time and skill. Full AI automation can replace this traditional method by instantly analysing the heart scan and within minutes delivering a diagnostic report through the cloud.

Doctors are freed from spending time on software, helping to minimize Covid-19 exposure, and cutting the time spent on heart disease analysis and exams to 15 minutes, from previously up to 60 minutes. This makes an enormous difference to clinicians in not only freeing up their time to see more patients but improving the quality of time they spend with them. Importantly, they are also less likely to experience burnout – an issue even before the pandemic.

Add to this the fact that heart disease is often misdiagnosed one in five times, due to variable interpretation from clinicians with different levels of experience, and it’s easy to understand why technological innovation – used in this instance to standardise analysis – could make such a difference.

Covid-19 has presented us with some stark facts about the vulnerability of our much-loved health service and given us all a sense of how important it is to protect the NHS. But we must do more than protect and maintain the status quo, moving forward we have to embrace innovative technologies to improve care and save lives.

In the meantime, we need to do everything possible to significantly improve the situation we find ourselves in now. Particularly in tackling patient backlogs across the NHS, and looking after ourselves, because of the devastating impact the virus can have on the body a – and in particular, the cardiovascular system.