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Health, Innovation and Taking Time to Admire 'the Norm'

19/07/2016 13:15 | Updated 19 July 2016

The most important innovations, the ones that change the way businesses, sectors and people operate, always share the same starting point: simplicity and accessibility. It's a proposition famously put forward by Professor Clayton Christensen and colleagues, in 'The Innovator's Prescription'. It's a suggestion with which, frequent readers of my blogs will know, I'm inclined to agree.

The problem is, however, that while simple solutions to complex issues may be disruptive at the start - and change the way we do things - the fact that they are simple means that we quickly underestimate the impact they've had on daily life. In other words, we take things for granted.

Nowhere is this more evident than in healthcare. It's very easy to become preoccupied with the barriers to innovation, rather than taking time to appreciate developments that have already made a significant difference to our lives.

Take, for example, automated arrival technology in GP surgeries and health centres. You know - the discreet little touchscreen at the door that enables you to check in without having to queue at reception.

Innovative? I suspect most people would say no. After all it's nothing out of the ordinary in today's world where checking out your own groceries in the supermarket is an everyday task.

But that's the point - 'simple and accessible' quickly becomes the norm. Even as recently as ten years ago, automated arrival technology was new in GP surgeries and by no means commonplace. Back then, it was rather a novelty.

Well, the novelty value may have worn off but the benefits haven't.

As well as reducing queues at reception - freeing up staff to spend more time with patients who may have more in-depth queries or requirements, and saving patients' time - these simple devices also offer many other important advantages.

For one, they can be multi-lingual - ensuring that patients who struggle with English can check-in with ease. Also, in some instances patients may be nervous or embarrassed about their appointment (particularly if they are booked in to see a specialist practitioner at the surgery), and so prefer to check in discreetly rather than speak to a receptionist.

Most of these systems also now facilitate additional data capture, such as simple questions about smoking, drinking or exercise habits. Again, this seems a small thing but it can save GP surgeries hundreds of hours of time identifying 'at risk' patients (which they have a responsibility to do) and help significantly with targeted health intervention programmes.

Simple? Yes. Accessible? Yes. Disruptive? Well, yes - certainly in the sense that the introduction of such devices changed the way we do things. But most of us wouldn't give this development a second thought these days.

Automated arrivals technology is just one small example, of course. There are more much more dramatic ones.

Take stents, for instance. These mesh tubes, used to widen/strengthen narrow or weak arteries, only really became commonplace in the 90s (the very first coronary stent was used in 1986). They have, of course, evolved in that time - from drug-eluting to bioabsorbable - but the fact that we now consider them a necessity of modern-day surgery shows how engrained their usage has become.

The truth is that healthcare is a world where time perceptions become remarkably skewed because innovations embed themselves so deeply and so quickly into our daily lives.

In a recent discussion with a colleague about organ donation, for example, I was shocked to be reminded that the NHS national organ donor register was only established in 1994. I suspect, like me, you think it began decades ago.

There is a fascinating tool - the 'NHS history timeline' - which shows just how far we've come in a relatively short time. Fittingly perhaps in an article like this, it's already out of date, but it makes you stop and appreciate the strides we have made.

It also makes you stop and think about what is to come - the innovations breaking through now that are set to become the future 'norm' in healthcare.

Use of Personal Health Records (PHRs) and apps for patient-led condition management and monitoring. Genome sequencing - treatment development based on an individual's genetic profile. Digital consultations for triage and/or treatment. These are all areas of huge potential that, not long from now, will simply be the way healthcare operates.

In fact it's more likely than ever before that innovation will be adopted quickly. For one, because there is a chronic need. A survey of over 5,000 GP consultations by NHS England showed that more than a quarter could/should have been handled by other health services or at home by the patient. Digital triage to identify such cases and relieve pressure on GP resources would make a massive difference.

Secondly, advances in technology now happen at such a pace that innovation can go from incubation to deployment much more quickly.

There is a 'but' with all of this of course. While healthcare is perhaps the most exciting and ground-breaking arena for innovation - it is also mired in red-tape that can slow progress. Those of us working in healthcare, whether as suppliers, providers or legislators, can certainly do more to combat this.

But to those individuals or organisations that use bureaucracy as an excuse to say "that'll never happen", I suggest they stop and take stock of where we've come from.

If the past is anything to go by, the future will be amazing.

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