• Simon Stevens says new financial incentives will be introduced next year for adopting machine learning
  • Services targeted will include some types of screening, diagnostics and outpatients
  • Likely to be funded through changes to the national tariff 

NHS providers will receive additional funding to replace clinicians with artificial intelligence in some services, Simon Stevens has said.

Speaking at a Reform think tank event in Westminster on Wednesday, NHS England’s chief executive said he plans to adjust payments to providers to incentivise the take-up of machine learning from April next year.

Areas where incentives were likely to be introduced include screening, diagnostics and outpatient appointments, which the NHS has pledged to cut by a third within five years.

He said: “NHS England is kicking off a global call for evidence about how those people with those technologies think we should adjust our reimbursement frameworks in April next year… to create a strong financial pull factor for the application of those technologies.”

Speaking to HSJ after his speech, Mr Stevens said possible payment mechanism could include adjustment to the national tariff for some outpatients pathways, a “best practice” tariff for machine-learning enabled diagnostics and a new wave of innovation technology payments for specific products.

He said there was clear evidence that clinicians could be “substituted” with machine learning for some tasks. This included areas such as radiography where there was both growing patient demand and severe workforce shortages.

He said: “We are doing around two million breast screenings for women each year in the UK that, at the moment, have two pairs of eyeballs on them. It is almost inevitable that over the next five years… at least one of those pairs of eyeballs will be substituted for machine learning processes for image recognition.

“We have an opportunity to substitute a lot of what is human labour in those areas, cut waits and free up clinical time for more valuable activities.”

NHS England is also looking specifically at how some high-volume outpatient specialities, such as dermatology and ophthalmology, could use machine learning to cut the number of appointments needed.

Mr Stevens was speaking a day after NHS England’s chair, Lord Prior, criticised ministers for declining to back a £50bn bond to fund NHS capital works.

Speaking at the event, Mr Stevens said efficiency gains in recent years were built on pay constraints and NHS staff working harder, neither of which were “reproducible indefinitely”. He said increasing capital was “central” to the NHS for the next five years.

He added: “We need to continue to back the revenue we have over the next five years with proper capital investment. There is no health service or part of the economy that is not increasing capital intensity if it is driving productivity.”

On Wednesday, NHS England also announced four new technologies that will be supported by the innovation technology payment programme this year. This includes 3D image analysis software, two new blood tests and a device that uses electric pulses to treat cluster headaches.