Health technology and the NHS post-coronavirus

There are (and I say this neither lightly nor without empathy for those adversely affected) always positives – poignant lessons – to be gleaned from difficult and testing circumstances. The first half of 2020 has been marked by tragedy but, driven by the challenges brought about by misfortune, changes to attitudes and practices have emerged.

Professional organisations, left with no option but to embrace new processes, have adapted quickly and have consistently risen to challenges. Communities have become more closely knit in spite of the need for social distancing with the vast majority of those capable of doing so having assisted their vulnerable neighbours in some way.

Our appreciation of vital services has been fortified, too; our comprehension of the difficulties faced by those working within fields such as logistics, sanitation, production, etc. has grown exponentially over these past three months. Nowhere has intensifying gratitude and understanding been more evident, though, than within healthcare – where day-to-day heroism and selflessness have been so evident.

We were, largely, already aware of the challenges the healthcare sector faced prior to this outbreak. The difficulties of caring for ageing populations and the dearth of qualified doctors and nurses were well documented. Numerous publications also claimed, via editorials and commentaries, that the National Health Service (NHS) required more funding.

With the billions spent keeping the UK’s economy afloat needing to be recovered and healthcare already costing the nation £214.4 billion per annum1, it is unlikely this institution will enjoy a significant increase in funding for several years. This creates something of a perfect storm: an already beloved organisation’s position as a national institution has recently been galvanised, yet it is likely to find itself underfunded.

As I’ve stated previously, there are always lessons to be learnt during testing times. In this case, technological advancements have played a huge role in maintaining some semblance of normality and functionality. It will also now transform how the NHS and private healthcare providers operate in the post-COVID-19 UK.

That decision-makers, informed by recent events, will embrace digital transformation strategies that will result in more efficient practice and superior care. Here are a few prominent examples of how investing in healthcare technology is likely to shape the ‘new normal’:

Digital communications will improve patient experience

Whilst some local authorities have trialled online systems for booking GP appointments, the reviewal of repeat prescriptions, etc. such developments have been few and far between. In the areas where they have been made available, they have received insufficient promotion. Of all of the GP appointments booked in England in 2019, just 11.6% were made online.2

The fact that patients cannot manage NHS appointments online (or, at the very least, that they are unaware of the fact that they can) is certain to contribute heavily to the 15.4 million that are missed every year.3 This simple change could therefore yield significant savings.

Video conferencing tech will make healthcare accessible

Video calling has been a vital resource for many organisations and individuals throughout this pandemic. It has provided an effective means of communicating effectively whilst simultaneously maintaining distance. Beyond the current situation, it is likely to be used by the NHS to make it easier for patients to attend appointments where physical examinations are not required, to reduce costs and minimise the prospect of people infected with viruses circulating them within surgeries or hospitals.

Known as ‘telehealth’, the act of physicians and other healthcare professionals providing their services remotely has already proven to be a success across the Atlantic where 40% of younger patients report that they view such services as vital.4

Reports have also suggested that the NHS could save as much as £7.5 billion per annum by embracing video conferencing tech and providing hospitals, surgeries and physicians with the tools they need to utilise it.5

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The NHS can work with new media to better inform the public

Organisations such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have long allowed objective algorithms to generate search results. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, this changed with results having been manually altered.

Now, when a user searches for information on the virus, the results they are presented with are not determined by machines, but by people who, having worked closely with physicians and healthcare specialists, have subjectively determined the best sources of information such as the World Health Organisation, the Centre for Disease Control or the NHS.

Were such an approach to be used for similar searches, this could ensure that the best possible information was made available. In turn, this could lead to fewer unnecessary appointments being booked, ensuring that conditions are identified and treated early, and so on.

According to Google, as many as 5% of all searches conducted on their platform are health-related.6 With the organisation currently processing 40,000 searches every second7, this equates to 172 million health-based searches every single day making it abundantly clear how beneficial such an arrangement could be for healthcare providers and patients across the globe.

AI will transform the diagnosis process

We’ve written about how artificial intelligence has helped to diagnose COVID-19 patients recently, but it has long been possible for this technology to ease the burden placed on medical professionals – and typically with impressive results.

By providing an AI programme with 1.3 million patient records, academics at the University of California were able to develop AI that could diagnose glandular fever, roseola, influenza, chicken pocks and hand-foot-mouth disease with 97% accuracy. Another AI system, fed multiple CT scans consistently outperformed radiologists in the correct diagnoses of lung cancer. Finally, an AI system called IDx-DR can correctly diagnose diabetic retinopathy by reviewing images of the backs of patients’ eyes with 89.5% accuracy and without any involvement from physicians.8

Furthermore, additional studies have revealed that AI is equally capable of producing accurate diagnoses when the analysis is reliant upon a visual resource such as that collected during an MRI scan or x-ray.9 The technology exists and, if used within the NHS, the effects could reasonably be compared to the appointment of thousands of trained physicians.

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Wearables can facilitate proactive care

Opposition to sharing data could soften as a result of the COVID pandemic and, when combined with the growth of wearable health tech, this could prove useful to healthcare providers and patients.

If devices were to share information with healthcare providers automatically, early signs of various conditions could be identified and users could be informed of this and tested wherever possible. Once confirmed or suspected, patients can be provided with advice on how to manage emerging conditions, thus preventing them from developing into any that will hinder the patient’s quality of life or require long-term treatment.

It is even possible that the data generated could allow healthcare professionals to develop bespoke care plans for users that will address their unique concerns and help them to maintain their health.

  1. ONS (2020), Healthcare expenditure, UK health accounts: 2018
  2. NHS England (2019), GP Patient Survey 2019
  3. NHS England (2019), Missed GP appointments costing NHS millions
  4. Healthcare IT News (2018), Millennials demand telehealth in a move away from traditional primary care model
  5. Pharmaphorum (2018), Telehealth could save NHS England £7.5bn
  6. Google (2015), A remedy for health-related questions: health info in the Knowledge Graph
  7. Internet Live Stats, Google Search Statistics
  8. Medium (2019)
  9. The Guardian (2019), AI equal with human experts in medical diagnosis, study finds​​​​​​


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