Artificial intelligence meets emotional intelligence

How a beloved colleague helped inspire cutting-edge technology for cancer patients.

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Cancer touches everyone. Around half of us will become patients[1] and by 2030, it is estimated four million people will be living with the disease[2]. Generally, the UK has a slower uptake in cancer medicines (versus other G5 countries) and when it comes to survival, the UK is lagging behind the rest of the world, particularly for cancers including stomach, colon, rectal and lung[3].

The NHS is keen to change this. The introduction of NHSX demonstrates a commitment to modernise care; reduce demands on clinicians and make life easier for patients. The NHS Long Term Plan also sets a new ambition to accelerate early diagnosis, committing to increasing the proportion of cancers diagnosed at stages 1 and 2 from around half to three-quarters by 2028. If achieved, the NHS would help save 55,000 more people each year for at least five years after diagnosis.[4]

More people surviving cancer is an aim that Pfizer shares with the NHS, but it is important to remember that this means more people living with and beyond cancer, which can be challenging for a patient, not to mention the NHS that cares for them. It is vital that all parts of the healthcare system (industry, clinicians and the NHS) continue to adapt to the changing needs of cancer patients.  Collaboration is essential if we are going to do this.

Working together for cutting-edge solutions

“One project that we are most proud of at the Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff uses cutting-edge technology to help improve the experience for cancer patients,” explains Webb, Project Lead, Associate Director of Planning, Performance and Innovation, Velindre University NHS Trust. “And we have found a remarkable way to do it – by taking a beloved colleague as the inspiration for a promising piece of technology.”

Webb continues: “To enable this, Pfizer provided an educational grant which allowed us to work with IBM Watson to explore how innovative technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), could educate and empower lung and metastatic breast cancer patients to better manage their health. Our main ambition for this project was to consider how digital technologies can better support patients, while also exploring how we can help alleviate pressures on NHS clinicians and services, which are strapped for time and money.”

The Velindre Cancer Centre piloted a virtual assistant called RiTTA to help answer patient questions about their care. RiTTA stands for Realtime Information Technology Towards Activation, but it’s not quite as mechanical as it sounds. RiTTA is modelled on a much-loved colleague who plays an essential role in the patient experience. “To create RiTTA, we took recordings of her real conversations, where questions ranged from asking where to go for emotional support through to whether it is safe to drink alcohol while on chemotherapy.”[5]

Putting the patient first

Patient experience is of the utmost importance to Pfizer and the pioneering team at the Velindre, who asked their patients what matters most to them. Outcomes are important, but patients value good communication; they also value emotional wellbeing as highly as physical health. Having access to information and support when at their most vulnerable and at a time convenient to them is a key part of this. The National Cancer Patient Experience Survey 2018 showed that the proportion of cancer patients being offered information about support and self-help groups had risen over the last year, which is good news; it seems that more and more hospital staff are recognising how important information is to the patient experience.[6] Technological developments like RiTTA are another way to help achieve this.

Looking to the future

“We hope this project will result in more cancer patients having access to an intelligent digital platform that will offer them round-the-clock information and support about their condition and care”. Webb explains. “We also hope that RiTTA’s continued success and evolution will result in a domino effect; that it will help demonstrate the potential of technologies such as AI in cancer care and the benefit of the NHS adopting a pro-innovation mind-set to making services more efficient and effective for the patients who use them.”

Pfizer believes strongly in the ‘whole patient approach’ which means working collaboratively as active partners, developing solutions to improve the delivery of care and outcomes for people with cancer. In the future, partnership working will allow us to combine skills, experiences and resources so that we can address what patients need the most while tackling some of the challenges facing the NHS today. We also believe that everything we do, from diagnosis through to treatment and beyond, should work for the patient, who is always our most important collaborator of all.

Geoff Rollason is Director of Patient Experience, Pfizer Oncology UK. Philip Webb is Project Lead, Associate Director of Planning, Performance and Innovation, Velindre University NHS Trust.

Job code: PP-ONC-GBR-1239, date of preparation: November 2019


[1] Cancer Research UK, Cancer risk statistics, Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/risk#heading-Zero

[2] Maddams J, Utley M, Møller H. Projections of cancer prevalence in the United Kingdom, 2010-2040. Br J Cancer 2012; 107.  Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3461160/

[3] Arnold, M. et al. (2019) Progress in cancer survival, mortality, and incidence in seven high-income countries 1995–2014 (ICBP SURVMARK-2): a population-based study. Lancet Oncology, doi:10.1016/S1470-2045(19)30456-5

[5] Digital Health Ecosystem Wales, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Robotics, Summaries of the presentations given at the Digital Health Ecosystem Wales event, September 2018. Available from: https://lshubwales.com/sites/default/files/2018-12/DHEW%20publication%20english.pdf