It is 20 years since neurologist Prof Chris Bladin began testing the use of AI to analyse brain scans of patients who had suffered a suspected stroke.
With strokes every minute counts.
Treating an attack on the brain quickly – and administering clot-busting drugs to the patients who can be saved by it – can prevent the most devastating and life-changing disabilities.
“Time is brain” is the mantra repeated by stroke experts.
The time the brain is deprived of oxygen determines the extent of the brain damage: the longer it is, the greater the chance that the harm will be permanent.
Prof Bladin, a pioneer of stroke telemedicine, as well as in the use of AI to support it, is director of the Victorian Stroke Telemedicine Service, in Melbourne, Australia.
The centre – based in an ambulance service - runs across 34 hospitals across the states of Victoria and Tasmania, serving almost 7 million people in an area about the size of the UK.
When a patient suffers a suspected stroke, they usually end up in A&E, where junior doctors try to make an assessment.
But many conditions – including migraines and epilepsy – can be mistaken for a stroke.
As the clock ticks, clinicians need to identify the 60 per cent of suspected cases which are a stroke – and among those, identify the cases in need of thrombolysis; the treatment to disperse clots and return blood supply to the brain.
Under the system, junior doctors who suspect their patient has suffered a stroke use video technology (a machine called Teledoc) to reach senior neurologists in minutes.
After pressing a large green button, a consultant pops up on screen at the end of a patient’s bed, enabling a remote assessment.
The same senior doctor is also able to access the brain scans, which have already been analysed by AI.
In some cases, the damage shown on scans may not be matched by the patient’s behaviour: in that situation, stroke teams work with still more urgency, knowing it is only a matter of time before the impact is felt.
Astonishingly, Prof Bladin began testing the use of AI to analyse scans 20 years ago – using what he calls a “rudimentary system of colour by numbers”.
Global league tables show Australia’s heart and stroke services are decades ahead of those in the UK.
Australia has four times the scanning capacity – second only to Japan for MRI, CTI and PET scans, while Britain languishes at the bottom of the charts.
Thanks to speedy diagnosis and treatment, death rates for heart attack and stroke for those admitted to hospital are half those of the UK.
Labour is pledging to borrow from the model in use across the Australian state of Victoria – with Wes Streeting expressing frustration that Britain is decades behind other countries in the deployment of such advances.
Having already promised to double Britain’s scanning capacity within one term of Labour winning a general election, Mr Streeting says new kit must be AI enabled, so that all scans can be analysed using machine learning.
During a week in Australia, the shadow health secretary has seen first-hand medical systems and advances that he wants Britain to adopt.
On Saturday, he used an interview with The Telegraph to announce plans for a new network of GP hubs, open evenings and weekends, bringing together GPs, dentists, minor injury treatment and a range of other services to lift pressures on A&E units.
This idea is closely modelled on Australia’s urgent care clinics, which are now being rolled out across the country following Labor’s health manifesto pledge for 50 centres.
With the NHS under unprecedented strain, as waiting lists rise, despite record funding, Mr Streeting says he is keen to ensure the service learns from approaches that have proven successful elsewhere, rather than expecting extra funding.
On Sunday, he was due to fly to Singapore for discussions about its approach to healthcare. Most notably, its Government in 2019 struck a deal with Fitbit, giving citizens free wearable devices, as part of efforts to nudge people into healthier lifestyles.
This tour is just the start, says the Labour frontbencher, who was last week named “the politician to watch” at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards.
Mr Streeting, often tipped to be a future party leader, has previously admitted he would “die happy” if he one day got the top job.
For now, he insists he would consider it a “job done well” if health secretary were to be as far as he gets – as long as he succeeds in “taking the NHS from its worst crisis in its history, to putting in place a serious 10-year plan for health and social care that people look back on as the turning point.”
At this, he focuses his ire on the Tories.
“They haven’t got the first clue how to reform the NHS. They have had plenty of chances, they’ve had plenty of health secretaries - five in the two years that I’ve been shadow health secretary. Their time is up, and the longer the Conservatives are in power, the longer patients will wait,” he said, accusing the Government of a succession of “clown shows”.
Complacency, in assuming the next election is in the bag for Labour, is the biggest danger facing the party, he suggests.
As for when he expects that election to be?
“Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas,” he remarked, dryly. “I’d be very surprised if Rishi calls a general election early in the next year, but I think it is objectively in our country’s best interests to do so,” going on to suggest the current Government has no mandate for recent announcements, such as the abolition of A-levels.
“The tragedy is that for all of the changing of the guard in around the Cabinet table, it’s still the same dysfunctional Conservative Party underneath,” he continues.
“I think their conduct has been appalling. Their record of delivery has been poor. And their incompetence has been staggering.
“And I think that’s why actually so many decent lifelong Conservative Telegraph readers are now looking to Labour and I hope that they can see in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, a changed Labour Party that is able to offer our country the credible change that it is crying out for.”