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It would be tragic if the NHS returned to its old ways

The synergy between the NHS and health technology could secure the long-term future of the NHS, writes Lord Hunt | Adobe Stock

3 min read

The pandemic has sparked a digital transformation in Britain’s health service. The NHS must continue its rapid take-up of technology to improve patient care

The way the NHS has met the challenges of Covid-19 is testament to the dedication of its staff and the resilience of the health system. But it remains under pressure with a massive backlog of treatments to clear, alongside the growing needs of our ageing population.

What’s striking is how innovative the NHS has been since the start of the crisis. Decisions which have traditionally taken years have been agreed in days; organisational barriers have been swept away and technology has been used as never before.

Although some face-to-face consultations will always be necessary, online appointments have become the norm and patients are being supported at home using technologies previously limited to hospital settings.

We have also seen a welcome change in the way outpatient care is delivered. For a long time, the NHS has persisted in bringing people into expensive acute care settings for routine follow-ups that could easily be conducted remotely.

A case in point is the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in my own city of Birmingham. The hospital was rapidly able to reduce some 600 weekly face-to-face appointments to around 80, initially by more judicious use of the telephone, but later using readily available video conferencing technology. Even physiotherapy is being delivered remotely and patients are happy, with satisfaction rates in excess of 95%.

Can the NHS build on this? It would be tragic if the NHS returned to its old ways. Significantly, a reduction in face-to-face consultations was named as a target in the NHS Long Term Plan published in January 2019. The plan aims for a new service model to give patients more options, better support and joined-up care.

Running through every page is technology and innovation. Whether it is individual technologies whose increased uptake would improve patient care and service efficiency, innovative approaches to reduce hospital admissions, or the acknowledgment that for the plan to be delivered, the NHS must become fully digitalised.

A worrying trend is the rise in chronic conditions, often perpetuated by diet and lifestyle, with increased rates of diabetes and obesity. It will be imperative for sustainable healthcare systems to predict, identify, diagnose and treat patients in a holistic manner and as early as possible to prevent, manage or halt disease progression.

Technology has a huge role to play. The NHS Long Term Plan argued that “the connecting of home-based and wearable monitoring equipment will increasingly enable the NHS to predict and prevent events that would otherwise have led to a hospital admission”.

As well as drawing attention to the role of technologies such as ventilators and diagnostic tests, the pandemic has served to re-emphasise the need for care to be delivered, where possible, outside of traditional hospital settings. Much of the technology to enable this already exists, but so far it has not been deployed at scale.

The contribution the more advanced technologies can make is huge. Robotic surgery ticks a number of boxes in terms of reduced contact and infections, while connected devices can relay important information automatically, allowing intervention to be made only when necessary. And early diagnosis of cancer and other conditions continues to be a goal for innovators and healthcare systems alike.

The UK has a vibrant health technology industry making a vital contribution to our economy. The NHS in turn is dependent on technology to enhance the efficiency of services and drive continuous improvement in their delivery.

The synergy between the NHS and health technology could be powerful and secure the long-term future of the NHS and the wellbeing of its patients.

To succeed, the NHS must continue at pace to invest in technology. A deal on Brexit wouldn’t go amiss either!


Lord Hunt of Kings Heath is a Labour Peer

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Hunt - Continence care requires a holistic and patient-centred approach