The UK is planning to use AI to tackle racial inequality throughout the NHS

By Monica Athnasious

Published Oct 20, 2021 at 11:34 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is continuously making grounds in a multitude of industries, one being the medical world. First used to diagnose early onset dementia, it will now aim to tackle racial inequalities in medicine as part of Sajid Javid’s—the UK’s health secretary—plan to “level up” the country’s health service. A new report by The Guardian details the projects behind this new governmental initiative.

Javid described his reasons behind the AI initiative to the publication, “As the first health and social care secretary from an ethnic minority background, I care deeply about tackling the disparities which exist within the healthcare system. As we recover from the pandemic we have an opportunity for change, to level up, and ensure our NHS is meeting the needs of everyone.”

The past 18 months have only continued to shed a light on the ever-present widespread issue of racial inequality in many pillars of society—one being the medical field. Structural racism in healthcare leads only to poorer health conditions for those from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds. A 2020 Sky News report on such matters found that black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women in the UK. Structural racism impacts even medical equipment, with a recent review carried out by the NHS Race and Health Observatory finding that pulse oxygen monitors may be less accurate on darker skin.

These problems have been present for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated them. Speaking on this particular inequality, Javid stated, “It is unacceptable that black women in England are five times more likely to die from complications during childbirth than their white counterparts. AI could help us better understand why this is the case and ensure black mothers have an equal chance for a healthy life with their newborn.”

What are the new AI projects?

The above issue is behind one of the projects put forward as part of this initiative; the project will employ computer algorithms to study and examine the causes behind such maternity issues for black mothers. The findings from such research will then be implemented as part of updated training for nurses and midwives.

This AI effort to clamp down on racism in health care, titled the AI Ethics Initiative, will be fronted by NHSX—a governmental department that focuses on improving NHS policy, data and technology. Other potential projects include the creation of an AI-powered chatbot tasked with aiding the screening of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV among ethnic minority groups. Another AI screening project in this drive aims to better identify and diagnose diabetic retinopathy in such communities.

Head of AI research and ethics at NHSX, Brhmie Balaram, told The Guardian, “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 healthy needs of diverse communities.” One of the most critical AI projects in this new goal is the updating of UK health data that would more accurately represent the country’s population. Currently, there seems to be a great divide in data which should be more inclusive.

For Javid, this is the first most important and integral part of the drive, “If we only train our AI using mostly data from white patients it cannot help our population as a whole. We need to make sure the data we collect is representative of our nation. This new funding will support the development of a much-needed set of standards to make sure datasets for training and testing AI systems are diverse and inclusive so no one is disadvantaged because of their race.”

While entrusting AI comes with its own issues—take Facebook’s AI algorithm labelling black men as ‘primates’—he continued by highlighting the positives of such technology, “Technology, particularly AI, can be an incredible force for good. It can save valuable clinician time and help provide faster, more accurate diagnosis, so patients can access the care they need as quickly as possible. It can also help us better understand racial differences so we can train our workforce to look for different symptoms or complicating factors, diagnose faster, and tailor treatments.”

As we hopefully await potential improvements coming from these projects, we can’t help but wonder if it’s too good to be true. With claims of voter suppression, an attack on immigrants, a war on Black Lives Matter and still legal revirginisation surgery—to name a few—the UK has a long way to go in the battle for equality.

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