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Exclusive: NHS Scotland is exploring how AI could help it to make better decisions

NHS Scotland is exploring how artificial intelligence could transform the way it makes decisions, according to a contract notice issued earlier this month.

The notice reveals that the University of West Scotland has been paid by the Scottish government to carry out a “market sounding exercise” about the burgeoning technology.

“This exercise [will] map the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of software suppliers which can potentially support decision-making in NHS Scotland,” the notice states. “[It will also] provide a reference resource for NHS and government services wanting to source options for suppliers to carry out AI work.”

The PIN comes just weeks after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, revealed his plans to transform the NHS over the next ten years. Hancock has put technology at the heart of his vision to overhaul the health service, which is still beholden to thousands of fax machines and pagers.

The potential for artificial intelligence to transform healthcare has been talked up by the US tech giants in recent years. Speaking in London in November, Satya Nadella – the chief executive of Microsoft – said AI could dramatically reduce the cost of NHS healthcare.

“If you talk about any improvement of the economy here, there’s no way you’re going to think about it without taming the ever increasing costs of healthcare,” he said. “New tools could change how care is given, how the patient is informed and most importantly the trajectory of healthcare costs going up.”

Some NHS trusts are already using cloud-based tools to make their services more cost effective. South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, for example, has used Microsoft’s PowerBI dashboards to boost patient capacity.

Later in November, the University of St Andrews revealed it was launching a £15m centre to assess how AI could improve patient diagnoses, treatments and outcomes. The centre, dubbed the Industrial Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research in Digital Diagnostics, will receive £10m from the government’s industrial strategy challenge fund.

Gus Tugendhat, founder of Tussell, which brought the contract notice to NS Tech’s attention, said: “This is only one of several medtech contract notices we have seen in recent months. In light of the mega-trend of an ageing population and the consequent pressure on the NHS, it is encouraging to see the Scottish government exploring how emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help them to transform the quality and cost of healthcare.”

It’s expected that the exercise will conclude by 31 October. NHS Scotland has not yet responded to a request for comment.