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23 November 2018updated 08 Sep 2021 7:00am

Putting innovation at the forefront of healthcare

The new Health Secretary explains why he has made adopting cutting-edge technology a priority for the NHS. 

By Matt Hancock

The health tech revolution is coming. Imagine a future where your GP explains to you that a company specialising in artificial intelligence (AI) and a pharmaceutical company have collaborated to develop a new medication for your condition.

More significantly, this medication has become available much earlier thanks to research breakthroughs inspired by detailed – but fully anonymised – patient medical data such as yours. Through analysis of equally anonymised data from people with similar backgrounds and comparable medical histories, they have synthesised a drug to benefit your exact condition type. 

Now here’s the best bit: your doctor now programmes and applies a patch to your skin which will administer the bespoke formulation. From this point on, the wearable tech measures the drug’s effectiveness, transmitting data back to your GP and the AI system, allowing them to alter the dosage in real-time via updates forwarded to the patch.

The use of data and technology in this way gives your GP more time for regular calls to check in on you and helps maintain the face-to-face relationship that is so cherished by patient and practitioner alike. 

This kind of integrated, person-centred care epitomises the aims of my department’s recently launched “vision for digital, data and technology in health and care”. It also underpins why our amazing NHS must be at the forefront of efforts to bring this vision of the future into the present. 

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Why? Seven decades of a national healthcare system means seven decades of data accrued on tens of millions of people throughout the years – but only now have diagnostic technologies matured enough to truly exploit this information goldmine.

Harnessing this data provides extraordinary and unrivalled potential to improve our health system and the direct care of millions of people. In the realms of patient safety and integrated healthcare I believe the benefits will be off the scale.

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We have to get the IT infrastructure right first though – and it’s a major focus of our vision, alongside speeding the development and deployment of new technologies, encouraging innovation and increasing efforts to upskill and liberate the health and care workforce. 

Good data management can bring these innovations about and at the same time strengthen cyber security and privacy. And it must. 

When the insidious WannaCry malware attacked multiple computer systems worldwide last year it threatened to undermine efforts to strengthen all three. Of course action has been taken.

A sum of £60m has already been invested to improve local IT infrastructures, and a Windows 10 licensing agreement has been reached in order to give NHS colleagues the most up- to-date systems.

A further £150m will be invested over the next three years to improve cyber security, including development of a national monitoring and security operations centre. All this will be underpinned with new codes of conduct making sure technology providers and those commissioning and deploying their products never compromise the privacy of the patients they serve. The Data Protection Act I took through parliament during my time at DCMS was just the beginning.

Legislation and codes of conduct are important, of course, but not at the expense of innovations which can save and transform lives – and it’s exciting to see them popping up everywhere.

Moorfields Eye Hospital recently hit the headlines with its unveiling of an AI system which reviews patient scans, detecting and proposing treatment referrals for more than 50 distinct eye conditions with a speed and accuracy to rival its human peers. 

And we’re not just talking about the development of health tech in traditional, clinical environments – this is also about health tech that goes home with you. For example, diagnostic devices are now available to measure blood coagulation at home or in residential care. This amazing kit emails data to the hospital automatically, allowing medication and treatment plans to be altered as needed. 

I want to make sure the NHS is at the forefront of innovations like these – innovations that use data in the right way to increase efficiencies, drive down costs and free time for improved doctor-patient interactions in the NHS. 

Importantly, I believe it will also have a positive impact on workplace morale – especially if health and care professionals are given more time to support their own wellbeing, not just those receiving care. 

But we need to come together as partners to achieve this. The tech vision will make the NHS more human, bespoke and better equipped to tackle disease and dysfunction in all its myriad forms. It’s a noble cause and one I am proud to champion – with the help of dedicated health and social care staff. 

I want the vision to be a catalyst for creativity, innovation and collaboration. So, let’s get to grips with how we use technological innovation to deliver truly person-centred, integrated health and care, focusing as much on prevention and detection as treatment and ongoing support.

Let’s double down on advances in communications and analytics to liberate the workforce from laborious admin, and empower them to deliver the very best care without compromising their own health and wellbeing. 

Let’s build faith and trust in how we collect, interpret and use patient data by creating safe, secure and reliable frameworks accessible to all those tasked with saving, prolonging and enhancing people’s lives.

Above all, let’s find the fastest, most effective ways to deploy cutting- edge technologies that deliver better outcomes for patients, the NHS and the social care sector. 

I’m confident that with a task so exciting, urgent and bursting with potential, it won’t be hard to concentrate minds. Let’s get to work.

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