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Welcome to Alder Hey – the UK’s first cognitive hospital

Lee Hannis (left) from Hartree Centre with Iain Hennessey (right), Clinical Director for Innovation at Alder HeyIain Hennessey is Alder Hey’s Clinical Director for Innovation and balances his role as a part time paediatric surgeon with the desire to constantly push the boundaries of what’s possible. At the heart of Iain’s vision is a hospital that cares for its patients as well as its staff.

Meet the man responsible for creating the hospital of the future

Can you explain why this project is important?

When I am with a patient, the time I spend making that child happier is time well spent.
If a child likes me and is comfortable within the environment of the hospital the whole process is quicker and less stressful for them. The parents are more likely to take my advice and the treatment is likely to be more effective.

I believe that if you get the patient experience right, you get everything right. If technology can help us to improve the patient experience then we have a responsibility to at least consider it.
At Alder Hey we have just built the most incredible hospital. We now want to improve upon the physical surroundings and create a hospital that learns and thinks – essentially a living hospital.

What is a ‘living hospital’?

At Alder Hey we want to create a hospital with the characteristics of a real human – a sensory system to understand what’s going on, a heart to look after people and a brain to analyse the data.
It may sound like science fiction, but we want the building – and the technology within it – to contribute positively to the care our patients receive. And this is where Watson comes in.

How will Watson help?

There are so many things that we could use cognitive computing technologies like Watson for, but we chose to begin by looking at how it can be used to improve the patient experience.

The Watson system will sit behind the app that we are creating and will help us to learn about the patient and their family, what the child likes or dislikes, and concerns he or she may have.

In Liverpool, one of the most difficult questions I get asked is: “What football team do you support?” Some prior knowledge here could help me to start a conversation positively. But the system can do much more than that.

Will the patient experience be improved?

When a patient arrives, to a certain degree we will already know them.

Personally, when we begin to speak, I’m not gathering background information, I’m already entering into a meaningful dialogue. I know the person, not the patient.

We can understand if the patient is anxious by looking at the questions he or she has asked the app, and can deal with these when the child arrives. If they need to come in to stay we can – as far as possible – tailor the surroundings for them, getting the room right, making sure their favourite TV programmes are available and so on.

It’s the little things that matter and technology can help us get that right.

Do you think it will work?

We have a generation of children that are now comfortable online and happy to interact with technology. Many parents also feel the same way, using tablets and phones.

We have a duty to ensure our patients and their families have information they can understand at the right time and the right place. If technology like Watson and our new app can help us do this then we should try it.

What do you think the hospital of the future will look like?

My vision for the living hospital is achievable, and I think we will see more and more cognitive computing technology like Watson used within hospitals. At Alder Hey we’re not afraid to push the boundaries, and are excited about technology, but we’re not alone. Cognitive computing is already being used in other parts of the world.

We’re really enthusiastic and excited but are clear that the technology itself has to be useful and deliver benefits to patients. It’s one of the reasons we’re happy to be working with organisations like the Hartree Centre and IBM, because they can help us match our clinical expertise and patient knowledge with their groundbreaking technology.


Lee Hannis, Hartree Centre – Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

Lee Hannis of the Hartree Centre – one of the key partners in developing the Cognitive Hospital – explains what the Large Hadron Collider and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital have in common and why the project is the most exciting that he has ever worked on.

Can you explain what the Hartree Centre does?

At the Hartree Centre we provide collaborative research, innovation and development services for business and organisations. One of our main areas of expertise is in managing and processing huge amounts of digital data.

As an example, at STFC we are responsible for sharing information from the Large Hadron Collider. It’s a lot!

The Hartree Centre is funded by the Government and is part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

Why are you partnering with Alder Hey Children’s Hospital on this project?

After meeting with Iain Hennessey, we were excited to learn about his vision for the project. Our job is to prove and test new technologies, supporting organisations to use technology in ways that improves their services.

It’s about transferring innovative technology to the real world where it can make a difference. For us, there is no better place to start improving the processes and experiences than the NHS.

Can you explain about the technology you are using?

We’re building the system at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital on a technology known as Watson which was created by the US company IBM. It has been used in healthcare settings before, but this is the first implementation of its type in the UK, so we’re starting from scratch.

Watson is the first commercially available cognitive computing system, and is really technologically advanced. But it still needs a lot of work to ensure the system is ready.

Currently Watson is a bit like a small child. It can understand the relationship between words, sentences and paragraphs but it doesn’t have detailed knowledge of the hospital, processes and procedures that it needs. This is what we are helping it to do at the moment.

What are you currently working on?

Currently our biggest challenge is in training Watson. We’re collecting huge amounts of information which we will then use to help Watson understand everything it needs to about Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.

Some of this information already exists, and some of it we are currently working with volunteer patients and their families to collect.

In the future Watson will get to a stage where the system can learn for itself, but we’re not there yet.
What happens to this information?

The technology that powers Watson is incredible, but the information it holds needs to be validated before it can be used.

We are beginning to work with colleagues at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital. In time we will work to check that all information the system holds is accurate and correct.

It’s really important to all of us involved in the project that subject matter experts verify that the information Watson holds and that its responses to questions are correct, so it’s a key priority.

Where could the project lead?

At the moment, we’re just beginning the project but the possibilities are incredible.
In the future we’ll collect a body of questions around certain procedures, building up a comprehensive database of knowledge which will help to support all patients. The app and technology, and importantly our expertise in making it work could also potentially be shared with other hospitals in the NHS and healthcare organisations across the world.

It’s not just patients who will benefit from Watson, clinicians too will benefit from having the information and support the system can offer.
Lastly, this project is the first of its type in the UK. It could help establish us in the UK as leaders in the world in the field of cognitive computing.

What does this project mean to you?

It’s about helping clinicians understand patients. It’s about strengthening that relationship and ultimately helping people get the best treatment.

It’s also about democratising technology for the NHS, supporting it to benefit from all of the incredible developments that have been made recently

For me, it’s the most exciting project I’ve been involved in, and all of us just want to make it work.


Phil Westcott, IBM Watson

Phil is the European lead for IBM Watson partnerships, the organisation who have built the world’s first commercial cognitive computing system. For Phil, the technology has to have a purpose – and he’s excited to be helping transform Alder Hey into a cognitive hospital.

Can you tell us a bit about Watson?

IBM Watson is built upon artificial intelligence (AI) technology that is the result of over of 40 years of research and development. As a business, IBM has always liked to take on grand challenges – you may have heard of Big Blue, an IBM computer that famously defeated chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov.

When we created Watson we wanted a computer that could think and reason like a human being and to be able to understand and interpret the way we process information.

As a test in 2011 Watson entered the famous US quiz show ‘Jeopardy’, playing against a team of humans. And it won:

Since then, we have been working to improve the system to help it learn and progress and to introduce it to the real world where AI technology can make a difference.

Where did the name come from?

Watson is named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson (Link). IBM also have a number of development laboratories, one of which is called Watson, where a lot of this technology has been developed.

What is your vision for Watson?

Our vision is to make cognitive computing technologies generally available around the world.

Our current strategy for Watson is to make the technology available to as wide a range of partners as possible.

We also want Watson to make a difference and to improve people’s lives and experiences, which is why we are so excited to be able to support this project through our technology.

What is your role in the Alder Hey project?

Our role is to make the technology available to the Hartree Centre to build innovative solutions.
At IBM we have a strong relationship with the Science and Technology Facilities Council who are global leaders in data-intensive computing. They are using IBM Watson technology to power the cognitive hospital, bringing their own skills of implementation.

We tuck in behind them and help to make the system to work. We can also share with the partners the new developments and improvements we make to Watson as the project progresses.

Is Watson used in other hospitals?

Watson is already being used in other hospitals, but this is the first time it has been used in such a way.

In fact, it’s special and a first in the UK. In other hospitals the technology is being used in decision support systems – essentially that provide additional information for doctors to help them make better decisions.

Why is the project so exciting for IBM?

From a patient point of view it’s about delivering the best experiences. We are all well aware of the incredible facilities at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, including the amazing new building that feels natural and positive.

We’re helping to create a system that engages with patients, parents and hospital staff in an intuitive and natural way.

It’s also technologically advanced and will grow in time. It’s an amazing project.

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