Technology and the NHS: The transformation is underway
Roy Harby, Solutions Architect at O2 Business, considers the role of technology in the transformation of the NHS
People have talked about the role that technology will play in delivering efficiencies for the NHS for many years now. But 2020 has moved the discussion on. Until recently, the discussions sounded almost like science fiction, involving surgeons performing complex surgery remotely, and using virtual reality headsets from the comfort of their homes.
Doubtless such advances will come eventually. What 2020 has shown, however, is that there is a much more accessible and down to earth role that technology can play to improve the healthcare experience for us all. My personal experience is that some of the measures that doctors surgeries and hospitals have been forced to put in place have actually improved the service considerably – and should form part of whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like for the NHS.
For example, consider the simple task of booking a doctors appointment. Before 2020, I used to read about patients queuing outside the surgery in the early hours of the morning to be sure of getting an appointment to see their GP. I’ve never done this myself, but I have certainly had to phone the surgery many times before I have got through – and even then have often not been able to get an appointment on the day.
For obvious reasons, appointments have been harder to come by this year, but some of the alternative measures that have been put in place indicate how healthcare might work in future. Telephone appointments with GPs have become the default option, with nurses and other healthcare professionals often taking on the initial call or consultation. The fact is that, as a nation, we are embracing unified communications, and the devices that we already carry in our pockets can deliver part of the solution:
Appointments – Booking routine appointments through a mobile app is the obvious starting point. Alternative methods should always be available, but I believe that the majority would be happy to switch – in fact, they might even prefer it.
Online consultations – In my experience, GPs have adapted quickly to providing initial consultations, and ongoing healthcare, by telephone. Many have been able to go a step further, and deliver ‘face to face’ consultations using accessible conferencing and collaboration technology such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom or Microsoft Teams. This really could form a key component of a more readily available service, at a time to suit you, that addresses the problem of failed visits and missed appointments. In fact, last year O2 conducted research that demonstrated how 5G technology could free up 1.1 million GP hours by replacing just 5% of GP appointments with tele-health video conferencing and real-time remote health monitoring.
Triage and diagnosis progression – We have seen how providing tiered levels of support works in technical support and customer support. The same technology could be applied here. Your initial consultation would be with a community nurse, who can access your medical records, and assess your symptoms. If necessary, they can refer you, seamlessly, to the next available doctor. They, in turn, can make a diagnosis and decide on the next course of action. It could be to prescribe medication, arrange a face to face consultation or refer you to a specialist. The whole service has been delivered through a single app, in a single session – without you having to leave your home.
Vital statistics – Many of us are wearing watches, or using phones, that can monitor and record your fitness, heartbeat, temperature or blood oxygen levels. They can even perform an ECG. Why would we need to pay a visit to the GP surgery for any of these, when we can do them just as effectively at home?
I believe that all these uses of technology could, and should, provide the backbone of everyday healthcare provision in future. But while complex surgery performed by robots may be some way off, technology is already being used in pioneering ways across the NHS. In recent years, for example, we have been working with Visionable, one of the technology startups fostered by Wayra, the world-leading technology start-up accelerator programme that is part of Telefónica Open Future.
Together, we have been addressing a specific challenge faced by the NHS East of England region relating to the diagnosis and treatment of strokes. For the best possible chance of long term survival, a stroke victim needs to get to hospital very quickly to receive thrombolysis, a treatment to dissolve dangerous clots in blood vessels and improve blood flow, within three hours. With the NHS East of England region serving more than 5.8 million people, and covering an area of 7,500 square miles, this all-important three hour timeframe has often been unattainable.
Visionable’s solution connects the patient in hospital or ambulance with the specialist consultant, based at home. The consultant is able to see and talk to the patient straight away, and can review the results of CT scans, diagnostic images and other test data before arranging for the thrombolysis to be administered. Better still, the consultant is able to support patients in a number of hospitals simultaneously, day or night.
There are many other critical conditions whose treatment could be improved with this technology, including neurology, epilepsy care and long term support of MS patients.
This is the future of our NHS. Accessing our GP using a mobile app is just the beginning. Investing in adaptive digital technology including telecare, telemedicine and video enabled services will help achieve widespread efficiencies within the NHS, whilst simultaneously treating patients more effectively.
How has technology improved your access to healthcare? I’d love to hear from you. You can connect with me via LinkedIn.
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