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The data revolution that could cure the ills of the NHS

8 March 2018

BB Healthcare manager, Paul Major, discusses the tech solutions to healthcare’s challenges.

Criticism of the National Health Service comes daily. The irresistible force of an ageing population collides with the immovable object that is finite cash with depressing frequency. The only surprise is how many experts proclaim that an injection of funds will steady the ship, despite evidence to the contrary.

Most of us probably realise that bailing out a listing vessel is not solved by having a bigger bucket. At some point, you need a new ship.

So what might this shiny craft look like?

Numerous surveys around the world suggest that around one dollar in four spent in healthcare is wasted to no benefit for patients. Despite this the outlook is not hopeless. In fact the outlook for healthcare has never been brighter – for patients, providers and governments.

Here’s why. New models for improved efficiency and better care delivery are realistic and achievable. They don’t rely on yet-to-be-invented miracle cures or technologies. They are already under way in pilot schemes across the world.

The UK needs to make a fundamental decision to lead in this area. Then, and only then, can we address the wastage question properly.

People share all manner of personal data with technology companies as the price for online services and social media. When it comes to health data there is an understandable reluctance to open up to third parties. Yet it is in here that technology can make our precious healthcare budget go further. The blunt reality of finite resources insists we allocate resources to greatest effect. Some areas of healthcare are very expensive: patients with chronic conditions admitted to hospital as emergencies because their condition has suddenly deteriorated. Predictive monitoring programmes are great at spotting these fluctuations and alerting patient and doctor to the need for preventive care.

Smartphone apps that enable us to contact a GP for a video consultation mean doctors can use their time more effectively and reduce the burden on overworked clinics. Routine blood tests and vaccinations could be done at pharmacies instead of at the GP’s surgery or specialist units at hospitals. Real-time monitoring of blood pressure, oxygen saturation, heart rate and glucose are all possible with wearable devices and sensors and, when combined with software on a smartphone can help to monitor and manage diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, breathing disorders and more. Even pacemakers and hearing aids now come with smart connectivity. Such devices offer us freedom from routine check-ups and an improved safety net.

The internet of things is a much debated idea. Not everyone needs to interact with their fridge while on holiday, or order online by voice control. But in a hospital setting the idea comes onto its own.

Networking patient monitoring systems and cameras to a control room allows a hospital to have a second pair of eyes on patients all of the time. In the nightmarish – but not uncommon – situation where something happens in the middle of the night when staffing levels are low, the nurse or junior doctor on call has an angel on their shoulder to provide additional input and improve care quality at low cost. The same support can be applied in the ambulance, where access to consultants could improve pre-hospital acute care, using a system barely more complex than a video-chat application.

The price our society is paying for living longer is a higher risk of getting cancer at some point. New drugs are coming through but the main challenge we still face is the speed that cancer spreads through the body via the bloodstream and the free space in the body that allows tumours to grow before symptoms appear. Modern CAT scanners can detect tissue growth in the body only a few millimetres across – they can spot cancer at its earliest stages.

But cost and radiation exposure makes routine CAT scanning unviable. Soon it is likely that a routine genetic blood test every few years should detect the presence of most common types of cancer. These will be expensive to start with – a few hundred pounds – but will fall over time. For those testing positive, the CAT scan becomes justifiable.

Diverse public and private entities are involved in owning and running healthcare facilities. This open healthcare approach is vital because it allows new ideas and approaches to be trialled on a small scale, to prove their worth, before being rolled out wider across the country.

The future of healthcare is bright if we are brave enough to embrace new models for the access and delivery of care. If we do this we can look forward to receiving the care we deserve at a price we can afford.

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