Transformation Directorate

New Artificial Intelligence projects funded to tackle health inequalities

NHSX’s NHS AI Lab and the Health Foundation have today awarded £1.4 million to four projects to address racial and ethnic health inequalities using artificial intelligence (AI).

The winning projects range from using AI to investigate disparities in maternal health outcomes to developing standards and guidance to ensure that datasets for training and testing AI systems are inclusive and generalisable.

The NHS AI Lab introduced the AI Ethics Initiative to support research and practical interventions that complement existing efforts to validate, evaluate and regulate AI-driven technologies in health and care, with a focus on countering health inequalities. Today’s announcement is the result of the Initiative’s partnership with The Health Foundation on a research competition, enabled by NIHR, to understand and enable opportunities to use AI to address inequalities and to optimise datasets and improve AI development, testing and deployment.

Dr Indra Joshi, Director of the NHS AI Lab at NHSX, said:

“As we strive to ensure NHS patients are amongst the first in the world to benefit from leading AI, we also have a responsibility to ensure those technologies don’t exacerbate existing health inequalities.

These projects will ensure the NHS can deploy safe and ethical Artificial Intelligence tools that meet the needs of minority communities and help our workforce deliver patient-centred and inclusive care to all.”

Subject to contract, the chosen projects are:

University of Westminster

The project aims to raise the uptake of screening for STIs/HIV among minority ethnic communities through an automated AI-driven chatbot which provides advice about sexually transmitted infections. The research will also inform the development and implementation of chatbots designed for minority ethnic populations in public health more widely and within the NHS.

Loughborough University

The project aims to use AI to improve the investigation of factors contributing to adverse maternity incidents amongst mothers from different ethnic groups. This research will provide a way of understanding how a range of causal factors combine, interact and lead to maternal harm, and make it easier to design interventions that are targeted and more effective for these groups.

St George’s, University of London and Moorfields Eye Hospital

The project aims to ensure that AI technologies that detect diabetic retinopathy work for all, by validating the performance of AI retinal image analysis systems that will be used in the NHS Diabetic Eye Screening Programme (DESP) in different subgroups of the population. In parallel, the perceptions, acceptability and expectations of health care professionals and people with diabetes will be evaluated in relation to the application of AI systems within the North East London NHS DESP. This study will provide evidence of effectiveness and safety prior to potential commissioning and deployment within the NHS. (Co-investigators: The Homerton University Hospital, Kingston University, and University of Washington, USA)

University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust

University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and partners will lead STANDING Together, an international consensus process to develop standards for datasets underpinning AI systems, to ensure they are diverse, inclusive and can support development of AI systems which work across all demographic groups. The resulting standards will help inform regulators, commissioners, policy-makers and health data institutions on whether AI systems are underpinned by datasets which represent everyone and don’t risk leaving underrepresented and minority groups behind.

Josh Keith, Senior Fellow at the Health Foundation said:

“Data-driven technology is having a profound impact on our health and health care system, but we need to focus on making sure the impacts are positive, so that everyone’s health and care benefits.

"We hope the projects being supported through this partnership can make an important contribution to this - helping ensure the advancement of AI-driven technologies improves health outcomes for minority ethnic populations in the UK.”

Brhmie Balaram, Head of AI Research and Ethics at NHSX, said:

“We're excited to support innovative projects that demonstrate the power of applying AI to address some of our most pressing challenges; in this case, we're keen to prove that AI can potentially be used to close gaps in minority ethnic health outcomes.

"Artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionise care for patients, and we are committed to ensuring that this potential is realised for all patients by accounting for the health needs of diverse communities."

Launched in March, the AI Ethics Initiative at NHSX kicked off with three initial projects, including the competition on AI and Racial and Ethnic Health Inequalities.

The Initiative is also exploring addressing algorithmic risks, in partnership with the Ada Lovelace Institute, and is working with Health Education England to empower healthcare professionals to make the most of AI.