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How will data and advancements in technology impact the NHS?

At the New Statesman’s Future of Healthcare conference, policymakers discussed the role that new technological frontiers will bring to the health service.

By Spotlight

There is a strong consensus among politicians and health leaders alike: Britain’s current healthcare provision requires improvement in many areas – but particularly in providing more personalised care for patients.

Over the past few decades, technological advancements have provided a number of benefits to both public and private healthcare, with millions benefiting as a result. The medical technology landscape is constantly evolving, and there is a risk that, without a coherent plan – and appropriate investment to match – healthcare providers and patients alike could be left behind, with the nation’s overall health suffering as a result.

Technology, data, AI and virtual services will inevitably form an ever-increasing part of healthcare moving forward. So what needs to be done to implement these in a practical way – and how will the changes benefit patient healthcare?

All that and more was the focus of a panel at the recent New Statesman Future of Healthcare conference session, titled: “The future is digital: How can data, technology and virtual services improve healthcare provision?” The conference was held on 31 October in London. The panel – hosted by Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of the New Statesman – featured Ming Tang, chief data and analytics officer of NHS England; Dr Vishaal Virani, head of health at YouTube UK and Ireland; Alan How, digital lead at Bayer UK and Ireland; and Professor Sultan Mahmood, director of healthcare at BT.

In their opening remarks, the panellists outlined the current status quo when it comes to healthcare provision in this country: that it lags behind where it should be. “Data and digital [technologies] are in all our lives. But sadly, sometimes it feels absent from healthcare,” said Tang. “It doesn’t really feel like it in the NHS,” Mahmood later added in reference to Tang’s remarks. He decried the relative lack of data use between patients, diagnosis and treatment: “We are not a national health service; we are a national sickness service. Our model of care is predicated on a reasonably Victorian model, where we patch up people in big hospitals with large, fixed costs, and then send them on their merry way. The system isn’t joined up.”

Despite it not being as prevalent in our national health service, data and emerging technologies are actively used by third-sector health providers. “For us, data is absolutely essential in regards to what we do,” said Bayer UK’s How, “from day-to-day to the development of our products, the identification and supporting of our patients.” Tang explained that in her role overseeing the technological and data infrastructure across NHS England, her key focus is putting pieces in place “[to] embrace data and digital, and embrace it in a way that is intuitive for the workforce, and patients”. Essentially: how the NHS can provide a technologically driven service to benefit both staff and people. Mahmood is convinced that is the necessary direction of travel: “I can’t think of an area where digital and data can’t improve [health] outcomes. I think it’s pervasive.”

But what does a technologically driven, person-centric healthcare system look like? The panellists agreed that data and technology can be harnessed in three main ways: in anticipating ill health and conducting preventative measures; streamlining services by giving people flexible access in how they are treated; and technological advancements improving the treatment.

The NHS began digitising all patient data in 2005; the information held in such a vast database, if utilised correctly, could be used to provide “anticipatory” care. “The data sets that we have,” said Mahmood, “we can start to be really proactive and [identify and treat] people before they escalate into that [percentile] of people that hit 50 per cent of our resource.” That’s a reference to the increasing issue of people with two or more “major conditions” – cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular disease, dementia, mental ill health and musculoskeletal disorders – who account for around 50 per cent of hospital admissions, outpatient visits and primary care consultations. The same group also accounts for over half of NHS costs and around three quarters of the overall costs of primary-care prescriptions.

Streamlining services is the second key potential benefit of further digitisation within the health service. Being able to offer patients flexibility when it comes to how they access care could take many forms in the future: where patients can get health advice via the NHS app that proved vital during the pandemic; virtual GP appointments becoming the norm – or where technology can help redirect people to elective treatments in areas where access is quicker. People want to be in charge of their own healthcare pathways, said Tang, and for it to feel “convenient”. “From our perspective, data saves lives,” said How, who explained Bayer’s cooperation in the development of a digital tool to support diabetics who are at risk or recently diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. NHS trusts are also working with Virani and his team at YouTube, which is working to prioritise videos produced by trusted medical institutions on the platform to help inform people and tackle medical misinformation. “The idea,” Virani said, “is to make it easier for viewers to access authoritative health information.”

Technological advancements will, as it has over the past few decades, continue to improve treatment outcomes for people. Exciting developments have recently come to pass in various research areas, and general diagnosis. However, one issue currently affecting the quality of treatment is the deterioration of digital infrastructure within the NHS. 

Mahmood noted recent research BT conducted among NHS organisations, staff and technological stakeholders in which half reported that the state of the current digital infrastructure is “a source of stress”.  Mahmood added: “Three out of five clinicians [we surveyed] complain about hot spots and connectivity in hospitals… we’ve got to get the basics right.”

This article has been developed and fully funded by Bayer Plc for a UK audience.RP-OTH-GB-1470 / January 2024

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