The NHS, Britain’s public healthcare system that is often admired around the world but savaged at home, doesn’t have a strong perceived record when it comes to integrating the latest technology in the world. The spectacular failure of the project to digitalise patient records, abandoned in 2013 having already racked up a £10 billion cost to taxpayers, is certainly the most prominent elephant in the room whenever the NHS and technology upgrades are mentioned in the same sentence.
However, it is by far from the only example of the unwieldy public service’s struggles with technology.
Health secretary Matt Hancock recently labelled the competency and efficiency of the NHS’s digital systems ‘downright dangerous’ in the threat they pose to patients receiving suitable care. However, Hancock also appears determined to leave a different legacy – one that sees NHS technology systems brought ‘into the 21st century’.
The hoped for technology revolution has two key pillars. The first is a £200 million NHS fund, the ambition of which is to create ‘global digital exemplars’ of technology in health care. The second is partnerships with private companies whose digital products can improve efficiency and reduce costs for the NHS.
The Health Tech Alliance is an informal trade body for UK med tech companies, chaired by Dame Barbara Hakin. She sees a vital role for technology in health care and puts increases in both life expectancy and the quality of life British patients now enjoy down to new technologies. Efficiencies freeing up resources are the most important benefit for a system burdened by the challenges an ageing population represents.
The NHS has an ‘Innovation Accelerator’ that provides both funding and guidance to promising start-ups working on health tech products. According to Laura Boyd, the programme’s manager, one of the key focuses of the Accelerator is technology products that empower potential NHS patients to tackle potential health issues at their root before treatment becomes necessary – prevention rather than cure. An app called Sleepio that seeks to tackle insomnia through cognitive behavioural therapy rather than medication is one example that is already being offered through the NHS.
As well as on the treatment side of health care, technology is also of course crucial to the administrative and logistics running of an organisation as vast and sprawling as the NHS. The many components within the structure, from GP surgeries to trusts and all manner of other entities use what are currently fractured systems. Getting different systems used within the NHS talking to each other is considered vital to the next few years of technology developments. The NHS is the biggest purchaser of fax machines in the world as paperwork on patients is still often manually sent between departments and entities.
The scale of the undertaking of bringing the NHS’s use of technology up to date is certainly immense. However, with motivated key players such as Dame Hakin and the current health secretary seemingly now pulling in the same direction there is hope, especially if private-public partnerships on tech such as the Innovation Accelerator bear fruit.