The NHS has a secret weapon. Why doesn't it use it?

Why is no-one talking about predictive care?

Two different but related stories on the NHS have emerged recently: Chris Smyth in the Times (paywall) reported  on £300m of ostensibly wasted funds from a set of tests focussed on over-40s, which operated in direct conflict with the "best available evidence." In other news, the Daily Telegraph (paywall) reported on a "time-bomb," anticipating that three in four adults will suffer from chronic disease by 2030, stressing the NHS’s ability to cope with patients as it continues to be challenged by budget constraints and a dearth of medical practitioners and support staff.

In the wake of the NHS’ recent 65th birthday, and radical recent structural reform, dealing with both of these issues form part of the broader challenge that must be met to ensure the long-term sustainability of the NHS. The organisation has to deal with severe budget constraints, and insufficient staff, and yet continues to be a jewel in the crown; one of the world’s largest employers and fulfilling the remarkable accomplishment of delivering near universal healthcare in England. An entirely different approach to healthcare is needed to ensure the NHS remains fit for purpose into the future.

What both the Telegraph and Times reports point to are issues that ultimately could be mitigated through better use of information.

In the case of the expensive and unnecessary tests the Times reports on, trials are already underway to deliver "stratified medicine" into the UK –  matching treatment with a patient’s genetic markers to assess not just the tests required, but the treatment options that will deliver the swiftest route to recovery and ultimately, improved survivability. This is already proving that we can  eliminate the need for "unnecessary" tests. The key here is that illness can be dealt with before it manifests into symptoms, at far reduced costs. After all, using a DNA test to prescribe the correct chemotherapy drugs for skin cancer raises the rate of effectiveness from 10 per cent to 70 per cent creating a significant saving in later treatments, hospital and in-home care.

Key to dealing with the staff shortages that the Telegraph writes on is shifting the overall paradigm for healthcare to one that no longer expends 70 per cent of NHS budgets on chronic disease care, dealing with illnesses including cancer, diabetes, breathing conditions and heart disease. Stratified healthcare can clearly play a role here, drawing on patient, environmental, social and genetic data to deliver the best treatment. In addition, increasingly popular advances in "body data" technology including everything from Nike’s Fuelband through to sophisticated wireless sensors deliver an opportunity to the medical profession: the correlation, analysis and interpretation of telehealth, telemetry and genomic data to treat disease pre-emptively. For example; an anomalous heart beat within someone that has a specific genetic and weight profile might be cause for pre-emptive medical intervention (avoiding emergency by-pass surgery in someone who is extremely overweight, for example); for the same symptoms in someone who had a fitter profile, it might be ignored, limiting the risk of "false positives." Similarly, this sensor data could have a dramatic impact in reducing the number of emergency hospital readmissions (that is, people who had to come back to hospital through A&E after being discharged) – of which there were 650,000 in 2010/11, a rate which has been climbing for a decade.

This transformation will need to happen in stages: the NHS will need to continue to make progress in digitising the way healthcare is managed in the UK and there will need to be better and more widespread data sharing between medical authorities, academic institutions and research organisations. Crucially, great care and thought will need to go into securing the privacy of individual health data even as it is used as a resource to provide better healthcare for others.

However – the prize – a significant reduction in the £80bn spent in chronic disease care, and a potentially dramatically improved quality of life for citizens – is one that must be sought after. And doubtless we may still face up to wasted tests or stretched wards – but hopefully this will become the exception, rather than the rule, and the NHS will endure to celebrate its centenary and beyond.

Illness can be dealt with before it manifests into symptoms, at far reduced costs. Photograph: Getty Images

James Petter is the Vice President & Managing Director of EMC, UK & Ireland

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.