Over the course of my career, I have been proud to be part of national programmes in Scotland dedicated to bringing cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology to the NHS frontline.

These have included the six-time award-winning Industrial Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research in Digital Diagnostics (iCAIRD), and the ‘Enabled by AI’ programme at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. I was also honoured to be named as Scotland’s ‘Digital Health Leader’ at a recent awards event.

However, those accomplishments pale in comparison to the difference AI – when harnessed ethically, with the right checks and balances in place – can make to patient care, which I believe can be truly transformative, and will increasingly become the norm in healthcare – in Scotland and throughout the world.

So, it was why I jumped at the opportunity to get ‘hands-on’ once again to help some of the UK’s innovative small companies to build and deliver artificial intelligence into the healthcare system at scale. In addition to some other new roles, I am very excited to be joining Bering – one of the star performers of the iCAIRD programme – as their chief technology officer (CTO).

NHS England is introducing Bering’s Brave AI product into GP surgeries across the South West of England as part of its Digital Neighbourhoods programme, to help staff spot vulnerable citizens, predict demand and identify patients most at risk of unscheduled hospitalisation.   

Brave AI is an example of a transformative population health platform. Rather than using artificial intelligence to diagnose or treat a patient once they are already ill and have been admitted to hospital, it analyses huge quantities of routinely collected patient data to help community health and care teams provide personalised, anticipatory care.  

A successful pilot of the tool in Somerset care homes has reduced resident falls by 35%, unscheduled hospital attendances by 60% and ambulance callouts by nearly 9%.  

So, is there an opportunity to use this type of system in Scotland?  

Scotland’s Digital Health and Care strategy is to use the best digital tools and technologies to deliver the right proactive and personalised care, in the right place at the right time. NHS Scotland’s Recovery Plan places digital innovation front and centre. Preventative care is a theme that cuts across all our strategies and plans. So, the answer must be an emphatic yes.

There were 122,688 unplanned attendances at A&E departments across Scotland in February.  In 33% of cases, patients had to wait longer than four hours, and in 5.2% of cases they waited longer than 12 hours. One obvious solution is to reduce the influx of unnecessary attendances.  With Scotland’s emergency departments at breaking point, it seems like now might be the time for population health tools like Brave AI to play a major role in alleviating these pressures on our NHS.  

Consider also, that we’re moving to a new national cloud-hosted GP system. That means that unlike in England, where each GP surgery has to be individually connected to these digital tools, in Scotland we could simply plug them into our national GP system. That would drive faster adoption and have an immediate positive impact on the health and wellbeing of staff and patients, whilst reducing demand on hospitals and aiding NHS recovery.

The question we should be asking ourselves isn’t ‘should we be using AI-based population health tools’, it’s ‘why are we not already’. With the right will, and the underpinning technology systems at scale, I think we are getting closer to that goal every day.

James Blackwood will be speaking at Futurescot’s Health & Care Transformation conference on Tuesday, April 16, in Glasgow. Register here.