Digital Health: The NHS Must Change

11/09/2015 by Darren Bristow

This is our third article in a series on the subject of ‘Digital Health’. We recently attended the Digital Health Summit, at University of Salford; which inspired so much discussion in the office that we started writing it down.

When the NHS was first launched back in 1948, it had a budget that was the equivalent of £9 billion at today’s rates. Spending has increased by an average of 4% every year since, and the budget is now twelve times as much. The Nuffield Trust predicted before the election that the NHS would require another £30billion a year by 2021 just to stand still. If this doesn’t happen and a plan isn’t put into place to find ways to make up the shortfall, the quality of care in the NHS will fall.

The NHS must begin by finding better value for every pound that it spends. This will mean increasing productivity.  The media often call for doctors and nurses to work more and/or longer hours, as this message is popular for patients who are looking to fit healthcare around their lives. But the numbers don’t stack up. The NHS doesn’t need to work harder, it needs to work smarter.

Technology has transformed the world around us. We don’t shop on the high street any longer – instead we visit Amazon and eBay. Music is bought from iTunes; the weekly shop is done online. This transformation is about to have a huge impact in the world of healthcare. We are standing at the crest of a wave which is about to change the way the NHS is run forever.

The Future of the NHS?

The Kings Fund postulated in their study Technology in the NHS (2008) that by the year 2018 we would be living in an ‘age of abundance’. This would mean that:

  • Economic growth was high.
  • Research and Development would lead to new innovations in healthcare.
  • NHS staff and patients will expect technology to be used within all stages of healthcare.
  • Information about patients is easily shared.
  • Health information can be gathered in real time.
  • People own discretionary healthcare products.

While the economic downturn and resulting austerity measures have meant that economic growth has not been as high as predicted, there have still been changing expectations of the NHS. More and more people expect the NHS to use technology in how it deals with patients in many areas, including monitoring, information and advice, consultations and clinical care, diagnosis, monitoring and relationships.

The Impact of Technology

Technology has the power to change how the NHS delivers care across the board.

Electronic patient records

Already there has been an improvement with the implementation of electronic patient records which contain detailed information about a patient and their care in all clinical settings. This can be then used appropriately by informed physicians to improve on healthcare co-ordination.

Long term conditions

Innovations have also started to help those with long term conditions which take up a substantial part of the NHS budget. Conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes affect 3 million and 3.2 million people in the country respectively. Long term conditions account for 50% of GP appointments and 70% of inpatient beds – resources which are being squeezed with the financial pressures the NHS is under. Remote monitoring technology means that patients suffering from these long-term conditions can now be monitored by their clinical teams from the comfort of their own homes.

Nursing

Through new technological, nurses are also getting to spend more time with patients in a meaningful way. Tablets and notepads mean that nurses can see patients in the community, helping to ensure that data is accurate and that time is saved on travelling to and from the office to use IT systems. This time can be spent with patients instead. Care is also safer as the information is available to hand at all times for patients.

Population monitoring

Big data has been a buzzword that has been around for a while but in the healthcare sector it can be truly groundbreaking. Where else can there be such a large impact from having large amounts of information about a population than how various elements are having an impact on the lives of an entire population? The NHS can be at the forefront of research with a wealth of information available from almost the entire population of the UK.

A Better-Informed Patient

As much as technology can empower the NHS as a whole, it also works on a macro level for patients. When patients have easy access to information about their health, it can empower them to be a more active participant in their healthcare. This means that they have a stronger commitment to recovery through self-management. The NHS must ensure that they are giving patients clear information through their websites, and pointing patients in the right direction when it comes to other online resources.

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