With cancer cases on the rise, it is time to act.
In 2020, COVID-19 brought forward a number of challenges to patient management, including the prioritisation of treatment plans for the virus, leading to significant delays in cancer care. But the drastic measures needed to address the current backlog could also put the health sector on a fast track to meet future treatment demands.
Cancer Research UK predicts that there will be 514,000 new cases per year by 2035, a staggering 40% increase. Management of these alarming rates will take more than the hard work and determination of health professionals.
It is essential to meet the unprecedented future demand for cancer treatment and this is where technology has an important role to play. From delivering the best possible patient outcomes to managing the pressure on cancer care teams, how exactly will health technology drive the optimization of the sector?
Using technology to save lives
With Covid vaccines developing at a rate never seen before, Dr Mark Tosher, who participated in the Oxford University Covid vaccine trials, described the typical 10-year trial period for vaccines as “most of the time, a lot of nothing”. With imminent funding, the team has worked its way through the trial period at an accelerated pace, resulting in a vaccine that is available now.
During the COVID-19 era, these fast-track methods have also been applied by cancer care teams, who are now providing more effective treatment in a much shorter timeframe. For instance, a number of hospitals have optimised the delivery of radiation treatments using hypofractination, mainly in response to the need to reduce cancer patients’ exposure to COVID-19 by minimising hospital visits. This technique, which involves administering fewer radiation treatments to the patient at a higher dose, speeds up treatment and provides a higher level of safety for patients; however, higher doses require greater accuracy, which is why the NHS is currently considering AI solutions to improve cancer care.
The Key Contribution of AI in the Health Sector
The power of AI lies in its automation capabilities that allow faster and more accurate radiotherapy. This powerful tool can significantly improve the time-consuming task of identifying organs at risk that may be affected by radiotherapy treatment.
Angela Rubio, former Chief Dosimetrist at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, explained the optimisation that AI Autocontouring technology brings to the contouring process by stating: “Prior to using AI, contouring for a head and neck cancer patient would take about two hours to complete. With Autocontouring it takes about 30 minutes. That is a 75 per cent time-saving for each head and neck patient. Essentially the technology is saving us seven hours a week; almost a full working day.”
Widespread use of AI Autocontouring could lead to similar results in NHS cancer clinics. This would allow time-pressed health care teams to treat more patients, improve current cancer care and create a solid base, essential to counter the expected growth in case numbers.
Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, underlined the UK government’s commitment to optimising the national health care system through the use of AI technology, which is proving to be a powerful tool to “free up clinicians’ time and save lives”.
As part of this commitment, the NHS recently announced a £140 million award scheme for AI health and care. It is significant to note that one of the main awards has focused on advances in AI-based medical imaging.
An impasse for health professionals
While government and health professionals recognize the tremendous value of AI in optimizing cancer care, the imminent access to this technology represents a major challenge. With the second wave of Covid-19 being once again a major health priority, NHS staff are striving to strike a balance between fighting the deadly virus while minimising the impact on essential care such as cancer treatment.
In these difficult times, funding is mainly directed towards COVID care while health professionals simply do not have the time to train for the integration of new AI technologies into existing treatments. Dr Rob Chuter, Senior Clinical Researcher at the Christie NHS Foundation Trust, explains that further support is needed to make the use of AI technologies a common practice.
While government and health professionals recognise the value of AI autocontouring in cancer care, bringing these solutions into the hands of front-line staff constitutes a major challenge. NHS staff are being stretched as they tackle the second wave of COVID while trying to minimise the impact on critical care such as cancer treatment. “We need more resources for training and development to integrate AI technologies into cancer care,” he says.
In an effort to accelerate the implementation of technology in hospitals, companies offering AI self-monitoring solutions are introducing acceleration programmes that include round-the-clock support for clinical staff and introductory periods to allow for proper assessment of the value of the technology, which will also allow for faster and greater funding. These programmes aim to help the NHS move faster from implementation to impact.
The implementation of these technologies has more than one benefit for the health system, especially as the NHS is already in a position to lead the way in data-driven optimisation of cancer care through its highly interconnected hospital system. By intensifying the collection and aggregation of medical imaging data in UK hospitals, the NHS has the opportunity to use data as a resource like almost no other healthcare organisation in the world. Within the framework of confidentiality of health care information and strict respect for patient rights, the use of this data can revolutionise the impact of cancer care and the selection of treatment pathways and will lead to the optimisation of patient outcomes.
By working together in this way, NHS organisations and the private sector can establish the basis for more effective cancer care, both now and in the future.