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Why the NHS is moving towards a ‘digital-first’ offering for healthcare

Dr Ben Maruthappu

By Dr Ben Maruthappu

Co-founder of the NHS Innovation Accelerator

Technology is all around us, enabling many aspects of our modern lives. Google, Uber, Amazon, Air BnB; across retail, travel, banking, manufacturing and other industries, technology has totally disrupted the status quo. So, what about healthcare?

Met with the challenges of ageing populations with complex long-term conditions and other population pressures — as well as finite financial and workforce resources — healthcare systems are looking for solutions. Technology is critical to developing and transforming healthcare, to achieve exceptional quality within the resource available.

In the UK, the government has set a clear vision for the use of technology, digital and data within health and social care, to enable the NHS and social care systems to improve outcomes. The UK benefits from being home to some of the world’s leading health technology companies, already bringing innovation to clinical care and research.

In the movement towards more personalised care, the 100,000 Genomes Project is a shining example of how the NHS is harnessing technology to change lives. Currently the largest national sequencing project of its kind in the world, the project has sequenced the genomes of around 85,000 people with rare diseases or cancer — and those of their families — to seek diagnoses for their conditions and to improve prevention and care.

The 100,000 Genomes Project will inform a new genomic medicine service for the NHS and facilitate new medical research. Combining genomic sequence data with medical records creates a ground-breaking resource. Researchers will study how best to use genomics in healthcare and to interpret the data to help patients.

Surgeons are amongst the first to welcome robotics into the delivery of care. In the NHS, surgical robots can already be found assisting with a range of operations, including urology, colorectal and prostate procedures. These robots, with sets of arms equipped with cameras, lights and medical instruments, are controlled by a surgeon with great precision, resulting in smaller incisions, reduced blood loss and less pain for patients. This means not only better quality of care for patients but also improved delivery and efficiency of care, by reducing the likelihood of complications and infections — decreasing recovery times and the length of hospital stays.

Monitoring of patients on hospital wards — including after surgery — is also evolving through technology. Exciting solutions, such as Oxehealth, use smart cameras to remotely monitor vital signs 24/7. This changes how hospital wards operate but also how patient health can be monitored and supported at home.Predictive analytics can be used to determine when a patient is likely to deteriorate and signal for early intervention.

Digital advances are also changing the face of ‘everyday’ healthcare in the UK. Babylon’s digital GP services are driven by artificial intelligence, using large volumes of data from the medical community to mimic a doctor’s brain. Their system enables people to see an NHS GP digitally at any time of day or night, 365 days a year, if they switch their registration from a traditional local GP practice to Babylon’s ‘GP at Hand’ service.

Artificial intelligence offers many opportunities to radically improve healthcare accessibility and, importantly — as demand for care outstrips traditional forms of supply — can be used alongside data to effectively manage resources and meet patient needs.

Prevention is a key objective for healthcare systems around the world, for which technology also has a significant role to play. In the NHS, where 10% of the entire system budget is currently dedicated to type 2 diabetes — a preventable condition — the Diabetes Prevention Programme is tackling this challenge by making use of apps that support healthier lifestyles and behaviour change. Here, artificial intelligence and social networking could also be used to tailor solutions to specific needs and provide support for people as they embark on lifestyle changes.

The new methods and insights being developed in the UK can contribute to improving health outcomes globally, through a technology-enabled system that meets the evolving needs of populations in new and more effective ways. Combining the advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and digital will enable societies to create systems of care that address these challenges, providing care to people in their homes and communities wherever practical, instead of hospital buildings being the default.

The opportunities offered by technology to innovate in healthcare across personalised medicine, digital and data, devices and wearables are being further brought together to create scalable, accessible and sustainable healthcare.

The opportunities for collaboration across global markets are huge, creating true healthcare advancements to deliver care on demand to our populations. Pioneering governments are already taking the right steps towards creating systems that can deliver improved health outcomes at a lower cost, with greater convenience and a better experience for patients. Ultimately, the Hospital of the Future is about using technology to create a new transformative roadmap for healthcare.

In the UK, the government has set a clear vision for the use of technology, digital and data within health and social care, to enable the NHS and social care systems to improve outcomes.