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2020 has seen major upheavals in the healthcare sector, as routine treatments have been side-lined to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. This has led to a backlog of cases in cancer care in particular. The BMA has reported worrying statistics in patient referral for treatment, which are at half the 2019 value for the same time last year.

The bottleneck in the system means that future cancer patients will have to wait longer for treatment. However, there is some good news for clinicians and patients, with Health Tech Digital reporting a recent breakthrough in cancer care technology.

Scientists have learned from the rapid production of the COVID vaccines, which saw development timeframes reduced dramatically from a typical 10 years to just under 12 months. One response has been to speed up cancer radiation delivery by employing hypofractionation.

This is a technique where patients are given fewer radiation sessions at a higher dosage rate. Hospital visits are therefore reduced, and the treatment timeframe is shorter. The more powerful radiation doses require a higher degree of accuracy, and the NHS is employing Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to enable this.

AI Autocontouring technology is playing an important role in speeding up and improving the crucial task of outlining a patient’s organs that would be vulnerable to radiation treatment.

Angela Rubio, former Chief Medical Dosimetrist at the University of New Mexico Cancer Centre comments: “Prior to using AI, contouring for a head and neck cancer patient would take about two hours to complete. With autocontouring it takes about 30 minutes. That is a 75 per cent time-saving for each head and neck patient.”

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has expressed his support for AI technologies, and the NHS has announced an £140m investment programme. While this is positive news for the overstretched healthcare system, experts acknowledge that implementing the new technologies will take time and training.

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