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

Why is no-one talking about predictive care?

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

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.