Thanks to collaborations between Google DeepMind and clinical researchers at Imperial College London, digital technologies will be used to transform the care of patients on busy hospital wards
St Mary's hospital in London where I work has 500 beds. Most days they are full, many with very sick patients who have had major surgery, or been admitted with an acute infection or traumatic injury. To keep these patients well, thousands of individual clinical tasks must be completed each day by the nurses and doctors on duty.
These include monitoring patient conditions, conducting routine blood tests and reviewing abnormal ones, administering intravenous medications and antibiotics, and dealing with calls from patients or families.
What will surprise many people is that despite the ubiquity of smartphones, these tasks are still mostly allocated to staff by pager, a technology at least 50 years old. Such calls are so frequent that they are often missed or ignored by busy staff. With very sick patients in danger of rapid deterioration there is an ever-present risk that the warning signs will go unrecognised. And that can lead to disaster.
Could this process be improved, speeded up and made safer? We believe it could. At the Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI), Imperial College London with funding from National Institute of Health Research, we have developed a digital platform, called Hark, for managing and prioritising the many different clinical tasks that medical staff must perform. In pilot trials published in an international journal, it has speeded response times by 37 per cent and proved highly popular with doctors and nurses.
I believe Hark could transform patient care, making it quicker, safer and better. Together with the team who developed and tested Hark, I want to take this technology into its next phase. So we are combining our medical expertise with the technical expertise of the world's leading data scientists at Google DeepMind, the artificial intelligence research division based in Kings Cross.
Sceptics will point to the NHS's chequered history with IT and warn that billions have been squandered on failed projects. The difference this time is that in place of grand, top-down schemes designed to revolutionise care, leading technologists are working much more closely with clinicians in a new spirit of collaboration.
It is not just at Imperial where this type of clinically led innovation is being put into practice. At the Royal Free Hospital a few miles away, DeepMind has also been working to improve the detection of acute kidney injury, which causes 40,000 deaths a year. An app based platform developed with frontline staff is helping to detect kidney deterioration at an earlier stage. Doctors who have used the app speak of their excitement at its potential to save lives.
By combining these two innovations, at IGHI and the Royal Free, DeepMind plans to create a single digital platform, that will enable doctors to spot deteriorating patients in many different contexts and to mobilise clinicians to act more quickly. A key target in the future will be the prevention of sepsis, the potentially life-threatening complication of many common infections which caused the death of one year old William Mead in December 2014 after warning signs were missed, triggering a Government review of the NHS 111 service. Sepsis causes thousands of deaths in the NHS every year - more than from breast, bowel and prostate cancer combined - deaths that could be avoided if monitoring of patient conditions was more effective.
These ground up partnerships are something we have wanted in the NHS for decades and which I advocated as chair of the 2013 London Health Commission. Growing pressures on health systems worldwide from increased patient demands and tighter budgets force one conclusion: we must innovate to survive. Technology offers the means to provide care more safely, speedily and efficiently. I believe the alliance we have forged between the world's leading health system and the world's leading technology company offers the best hope of preserving the NHS by providing high quality care to the right patients in the right place at the right time.
Lord Darzi is a surgeon and director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London. He was a Labour health minister from 2007-9.