The recent news that the NHS’s so-called winter crisis is set to last until August will have been a major cause for concern to any of us who care about the nation’s under-strain health service.
The British Medical Association made the stark warning on 2 April, after data showed that patient waiting times, bed shortages and ambulance queues hit record levels over the winter - and that hospitals are going to be faced with the same problems for the rest of this year, without the traditional easing of pressure in the summer, whilst budgets remain stretched to breaking point.
There are calls from all corners for more money, more social care, reform, rethinking and more when it comes to the NHS.
But what hasn’t really been talked about until now is how tech could, in some cases, help ease the situation. The House of Lords have finally acknowledged this, with a new report released on Monday titled ‘AI in the UK: Ready willing and able’ urging the NHS to tap into data-driven technology and saying AI could have significant benefits for patient care, diagnostics, research and personalised medicine.
I wish there’d been tech like that around when I was young. When I was 13, I contracted viral encephalitis while on holiday with my family. The last thing I remember is a headache and putting my hand to my head. What happened next was pretty terrifying.
I woke in intensive care temporarily unable to move my left side and unable to speak. I couldn’t ask my mum what was going on. I was confused by the alien environment and distressed by my parents’ anxiety. Luckily, after a few weeks of extraordinary care I made a good recovery.
Hospital can be a scary place for anyone. But it’s all the scarier for a sick child unfamiliar with the people who work in it, what’s happening to them, and why. In my case, MRIs and angiograms were some of the most anxiety-inducing and confusing experiences – experiences that I would have loved a distraction from.
Doctors and nurses understand the power of distraction and, just as importantly, the risk that by not tackling young patients’ anxiety and stress the effectiveness of treatments and the chances of a quick recovery can be undermined.
Now, there’s an app to help with that, that answer all the child’s questions, eases their fears and distracts them with a series of games. At the moment, Alder Play is only available at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, but it’s hoped it can be rolled out to other children’s hospitals.
And digital tools including voice-activated tech could also help improve patient outcomes generally and reduce wasted NHS drug expenditure, according to new YouGov research.
Failure to take medicines as prescribed impacts negatively on patient’s health and can even cost lives. It also puts pressure on NHS budgets, with an estimated £300m lost due to medicine wastage, at least half of which is avoidable, along with the £500m cost to the NHS caused by non-adherence.
Some 50% of British adults who used prescription or non-prescription medication over the last year said they would find a voice-activated reminder from the likes of Alexa to take their medication on time ‘useful’.
And more than a quarter (26%) of surveyed had actively used digital technology like health tracking apps to improve their health and fitness, showing British adults are already open to new technology.
More and more new tech is being developed which will be able to check and even control our health.
Just last month, an app developed by the University of Manchester to help patients in the early stages of psychosis was shown to improve its users’ mental health and secured £1.6m in funding to be tested by the Medical Research Council.
Tech can potentially help hasten good outcomes in all areas of healthcare which benefits all elements of the community and ultimately saves time and money, as long as developers recognise existing health inequalities. We need to acknowledge that creating digital solutions for those who are hard to reach won’t address the existing inequalities we already have.
According to figures from the Department of Health, the gap in life expectancy between those in in the highest and lowest socio-economic bands is increasing. Technology can help address this problem if we ensure everyone can realise their digital potential.
Yes, the NHS launched a launched a library of apps last year to help patients control some conditions such as COPD or get active with Couch to 5k. Prevention is better than cure after all. And Jeremy Hunt pledging that all NHS buildings will have free wi fi by the end of 2019 is to be welcomed too – being able to stay in contact with family and friends at all times is only going to improve patient wellbeing and expedite their recovery.
But most of the real digital health innovations are not coming from the NHS itself – they’re coming from external agents and tech companies.
With an ageing population, chronic conditions like diabetes becoming more prevalent and increased funding not forthcoming, there has to be another way.
I truly believe that rather than simply throwing money at the problem, embracing partnerships across institutions, public health bodies, tech companies and design studios can result in innovative solutions across healthcare. This will ultimately help alleviate the strain on the NHS.