Public Services > Healthcare

Cognitive computing can transform the NHS

Published 18 July 2016

Andreas Haimböck-Tichy, director, Healthcare and Life Sciences, IBM UKI explains how cognitive systems can add “layers of value” for those involved in public healthcare


Governments around the world are facing unprecedented challenges from the ever-increasing demand for services and continuing budgetary pressures amid moderate economic growth.  There are few areas in the UK, in which this is felt more than in the National Health Service.

According to the United Nations, the world’s population reached 7.3bn in the middle of 2015 and is expected to grow more than 32% by 2050. Additionally, both global life expectancy and the age-dependency ratio (dependents to working-age people) are expected to rise an additional 10% through 2050 – placing even greater pressures on the budgets and resources of governments and their health services.

Recent junior doctors’ strikes and tensions with Whitehall aside, these long-term, macro factors impacting the NHS are areas the Government is actively looking to address. One specific area that promises to offer a solution is the implementation of a cognitive approach to computing within the NHS.

Cognitive systems fundamentally change the way humans and systems interact and significantly extend the capabilities of humans by leveraging their ability to provide expert assistance. They provide advice by developing deep insights and bringing this information to people in a timely, natural and usable way – in this case for the use of clinicians and other medical staff.

Because cognitive computing approaches can consume vast amounts of structured and unstructured information and reconcile ambiguous data they can learn. As such they are able to engage in deep dialogue with humans as these systems can understand natural language based interaction and deliver personalised services.

These types of cognitive systems could help citizens get answers to queries by interacting in natural language, and it is not so far-fetched to think that these systems could be employed to provide extra assistance for GPs handling weekend queries, or decision support to improve and expedite validation of diagnoses for junior doctors. Furthermore it could provide a wholly personalised and friendlier experience for patients and their visitors, and also the back-end systems to fully enable digital services like NHS Choices and the 111 service.

There are already examples of the types ofcognitive solutions at work in the healthcare space. For example,  the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre’s cognitive solution provides personalised cancer treatment caring options for more than 100,000 patients each year in Houston, and tens of thousands more throughout its regional and national network.

MD Anderson has accumulated an unprecedented breadth and depth of clinical oncology data and knowledge, but extracting actionable insights from this information, however, poses a significant challenge. The volumes of data also block the pipeline through which clinical research can be completed, evaluated, approved and ultimately used in patient care.

IBM designed a cognitive computing-based Oncology Expert Advisor to integrate the knowledge of the clinicians and researchers helping them to develop and fine tune treatment plans for patients, while alerting them to adverse events that may occur throughout the cancer care process. The solution also enables comparison of patients based on a new range of data-driven attributes and is subsequently helping researchers to continually advance cancer care methods.

Cognitive computing is not a ‘one stop shop’ solution for all the challenges facing the NHS. While it won’t solve junior doctor strikes or the wider constraints put upon the NHS by the macro-economic climate, the potential use cases show how it couldimprove and add extra layers of value to all those involved in public healthcare.

Andreas Haimböck-Tichy is director, Healthcare and Life Sciences for IBM UKI

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