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16 March 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 2:41pm

Tech has transformed healthcare – policy must keep up

Technology is the key to building a health service fit for the future, says the Innovation Minister.

By James Bethell

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that the proper use of technology is not to simply make things easier for patients or clinicians. It is about saving lives – pure and simple. That is why we have made so much progress on tech – because it went from being “nice to have” to “mission-critical”.

When the country’s GP surgeries are shut, you have to stand up a national telemedicine solution. When wards are full and clinicians stretched to capacity, you have stand up an at-home oximeter solution. When you need hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 tests a day, you have to build a new diagnostic infrastructure. When you have to recruit 4,000 Covid-19 patients to clinical trials through primary care, even though the GP surgeries are shut, you have to stand up a patient-facing recruitment platform. When you ask the elderly and vulnerable to isolate for months, you have to distribute IT and iPads to low-tech care homes so they can reach their loved ones.

We are not pausing for breath. The NHS bill is a statement of our intent: technological innovation will play a central role in the radical evolution of our late-stage, acute healthcare system into an early-stage, preventive system because it helps us to save lives. The foundations for this transformation are already clear to see. Data and technology innovations are driving vital improvements to patient safety, whether it is deploying digital systems that monitor cardiac patients’ heart rate and blood pressure and connect with clinicians through virtual appointments, or by setting up safe, virtual Covid-19 wards to help manage patients safely at home.

We have also been able to reduce the chance of cancer being missed in women and the delays that put lives at risk by using AI to solve critical challenges in the NHS Breast Screening Programme. At the heart of all this innovation is patient safety, with technology pre-empting harm, designing out the scope for human error, and connecting patients to the care they need when they need it. This is a pivotal, life-saving change that is taking place when our health and care system is under huge pressure.

For me, the most vivid example of where tech has made a difference during the pandemic is in the shift from GP face-to-face appointments to videoconferencing, at a time when we were trying to limit the amount of face-to-face contacts. We have now fired up the NHS’s capability for remote consultations. Since March 2020 there have been 2.5 million consultations, totalling 1.1 million hours, through the NHS’s Attend Anywhere video service. Where appropriate, people no longer have to go into their GP surgeries or hospitals for routine conversations that can be done online or over the phone, ensuring safer lines of communication between patients and doctors and reducing the spread of the virus.

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It has been extremely heartening to see patients being increasingly put at the centre of their own care and their own journey and choices, and giving them access to information and their own data. From a place where patient data was very much something for the clinician to keep to themselves we are working to bring patients into the driving seat, and with this comes all sorts of potential benefits and advantages. For example, it promotes safer record-keeping, allowing patients to identify and correct mistakes in their data that otherwise simply wouldn’t be spotted. If done well, this process should help reduce errors, be enormously helpful, and empowering.

Clinicians have also led the way in showing how healthcare can be delivered differently. More and more services are provided to patients in their own homes. For the first time, hundreds of thousands of patients are being given pulse oximeters to use at home under clinical supervision. And evidence is already demonstrating the patient safety benefits of this approach. By encouraging patients to use these portable devices to identify where oxygen levels are dangerously low, and then upload their data directly to their clinical teams, they can be monitored remotely in “virtual wards” without the need for lengthy hospital stays

Perhaps the most critical change during the pandemic has been around the use of data, which has played a key role in terms of leaders managing the crisis, and, in terms of direct care, in looking after patients. We have simplified our guidance on how doctors and nurses share information with patients, and NHS staff have told me how liberating it is to know they can focus on their patients and not the complex web of information governance rules.

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The NHS data platform, developed by NHS England and Improvement and NHSX in collaboration with partners, is currently giving local and national health leaders the real-time information they need to help tackle the coronavirus and direct resources to where they are needed most. The data platform also underpins the vaccination programme and allows NHS staff to track and organise vaccinations across different geographies and cohorts. This has been invaluable in managing the national vaccine supply chain and it will continue driving improvements long into the future.

But it has not all been smooth sailing. We learnt a lot from the early phases of the NHS Test and Trace app, which allowed us to improve the security and privacy of the product and win the hearts and minds of the nation, which ultimately allowed it to launch to great success. Likewise, there have been issues with health bodies using antiquated IT for testing data, but when problems arise they are fixed, and NHS Digital and its partners’ digital infrastructure is now able to process 6.3 million test results a day.

We are now seeing a real sense of mission around creating a legacy for technology in healthcare going forward and meeting a generational challenge. The NHS bill aims to build on this extensive progress seen during the pandemic by continuing to enable hospitals, primary care and social care to innovate, integrate and harness new technology to improve people’s lives. 

James Bethell is the Innovation Minister.

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on health. You can download the full edition here.