Transformation Directorate

AI community surveyed, as NHSX reflects on a year of progress in its AI Lab

NHSX survey results shows a third of developers are progressing AI development despite the pandemic.

NHSX has reported a strong year for the AI Lab despite the pressures of COVID-19.

In its 2020-21: A year in the life of the NHS AI Lab, NHSX reports on the progress of AI for improving healthcare by driving forward innovations in diagnosis and speeding up access to care. The most common areas for AI development now include the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, which has joined eye, heart and brain technologies in the list of areas of AI focus from 2019.

Latest survey results, published as part of the review, also reveal that last year brought about great opportunities as well as challenges for the use of AI in health and care, as the NHS focused on responding to the pandemic.

NHSX surveyed the UK’s AI community to further explore the impact of COVID-19, with the results compared to 2019 to help gain an understanding of the technologies that are being developed, the progress made, and the support needed to accelerate this.

A third of AI developers in the survey indicated a positive impact, where healthcare pressures had resulted in a rapid uptake of AI tools and an increased acceptability for digital technologies being used to deliver care.

The survey also revealed that most of the early adopters of AI technologies are found to be concerned with the diagnosis of illnesses - broadly reflecting the position in 2019. AI was found to be dominant in diagnostics (57% of respondents), remote monitoring (34%), triage (32%) and population health (25%).

Upcoming trends regarding AI in healthcare also notably include personalised treatment and mental health, both of which have seen increased urgency for attention during the pandemic with the demand for at-home care and new pressures on wellbeing.

Reflecting on progress in its AI Lab, the review’s highlights include:

  • working with over 70 NHS sites through the AI Award to research and develop AI-driven technologies for health and care. The Award is supporting technologies from round 1 to test and evaluate their benefit to the health and care system before being rolled out into widespread use
  • collecting more than 38,000 images from 20 NHS trusts for the National COVID-19 Chest Imaging Database. This has enabled 13 projects to develop new AI technologies that will help to speed up the identification, severity assessment and monitoring of COVID-19
  • establishing four skunkworks projects trialling AI ideas that may benefit the NHS. The AI Skunkworks supports taking ideas from scratch to initial prototype and focuses on problems that will make a real difference for healthcare professionals, public health and social care
  • funding projects with partner health and care regulatory organisations to help AI developers, buyers and users understand how the regulation and evaluation of AI-driven technology works

The report also set out its plans for the year ahead which include continuing to support the pandemic response (through increasing use of the National COVID-19 Chest Imaging Database) working with a steady supply of early stage AI technologies to get them tested and trialled within one to two years, and developing a National Medical Imaging Platform to provide developers and researchers with high quality data.

Dr Indra Joshi, director of AI at NHSX said: “The pandemic has had such an enormous impact on the NHS, with waiting lists at an all time high.

“Through the AI Lab, we are seeing examples of how AI can play its part in helping to alleviate some of the pressures facing the NHS, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it be through efforts to speed up diagnosis and treatment, or alleviating clinician time and assisting with early detection.

“I am delighted to be part of this great partnership working between the NHS and technology companies and look forward to seeing further progress with our current programmes creating new partnerships through the next phase of our AI Award.”


According to the NIHR Innovation Observatory’s Mapping the Global Activity of AI Health Technologies (2021), the most common indications in AI development are oncology, cardiology, and neurology.

The survey was of UK and international AI developers, adopters and procurers over a five-week period from 13 January 2021. Responses were received by 368 members of the AI community, of which 197 were AI developers.

An initial baseline survey was conducted in 2018 by the national AHSN Network AI Initiative.

The survey was repeated in 2019 and 2021.

The survey was created by a core advisory group of 40 leaders and innovators.

NHSX’s AI was set up in 2019 with the aim of supporting AI technologies that have potential to improve the quality of health and care services.

Through its £140 million AI in Health and Care Award, it is supporting the testing, evaluation and scale of promising AI-driven technologies, which includes automating early lung cancer detection and developing deep learning software that could improve the NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies can make a significant difference to the health and social care system, and most importantly to patients. AI-driven tools can be used to analyse large quantities of complex information to detect patterns and predict outcomes. These tools have the potential to change and improve the way that health and adult social care services are provided to people by improving the quality and efficiency of care.