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Spectator Briefing

Is the NHS open to new technology?

16 October 2017

5:39 PM

16 October 2017

5:39 PM

At a dinner on Tuesday 26th September at the Spectator’s offices, sponsored by Philips, entrepreneurs, doctors and healthcare experts discussed how new technology could ease pressure on the NHS – and whether the health service was equipped to take advantage of it.

Guests included: Naushard Jabir, founder and CEO of Vida, Paul Bate, Director of NHS Services at Babylon, Professor Simon Wessely, President of the Royal Society of Medicine, Helen Whately MP, Dr Claire Novorol, chief medical officer at Ada, Neil Mesher, CEO of Philips UK and Ireland, Sola Adeleke of Aurora Medical Innovation, Nicholas Timmins, senior fellow at the King’s Fund and Dr Jakobsen, chief scientific officer of Immunocore and Adaptimmune. Fraser Nelson chaired the discussion.

From artificial intelligence to the internet of things, emerging technologies hold enormous potential for improving health and social care. At the same time, Britain’s health and care systems face an unprecedented challenge: the wildly escalating demands of an ageing population.

One area of great potential is in using artificial intelligence to diagnose patients. In fact, this is already happening. Two companies, Babylon Health and Ada, allow you to check your symptoms on an app and then, if necessary, have a consultation with a doctor online. They are clearly liked by patients. The Ada app has been downloaded 1.3 million times in six months and gets rave reviews. Paul Bate, director of NHS services at Babylon, argued that they help doctors too. They provide flexible working, allowing GPs to work when they like from home. And the initial use of AI, said Bate, reduces the strain on the system, lowering the number of GP appointments made.

Users of these apps don’t need convincing of their benefits. The same cannot be said for another area predicted to transform healthcare: the collecting and sharing of data. It would clearly be more efficient if different parts of health and social care had access to the same data – in fact, the Future Health Index, an international report published by Philips, revealed that 88% of UK healthcare professionals believe that the integration of the health system will make the quality of care better for patients. But a recent effort to set up a single database – the project – was abandoned amid concerns over consent. It was feared the data could be sold to pharmaceutical or insurance companies. ‘If they are going to make it work,’ said Nicholas Timmins, a senior fellow at the King’s Fund, ‘they have to say it’s for the NHS full stop.’

Timmins suggested that some of the ‘big early gains’ of technology would come in the boundary between health and social care. Testing blood pressure and other health markers can now easily be done at home. ‘Upgraded’ care workers could do these tests. More frequent monitoring of patients living at home means problems could be spotted more quickly. (And, in the future, digital monitoring devices could alert health services instantly if something was wrong.)

Naushard Jabir, founder and CEO of in-home care company Vida, said that kind of care is exactly what his company provides. Carers, he argued, are a mistreated workforce – they are underpaid and undervalued. Vida’s carers earn more and are incentivised with ‘gamification’ – that is, they are awarded points for completing certain tasks, unlocking rewards and training.

As companies like Vida, Ada and Babylon attest, Britain is a digitally innovative place when it comes to healthcare. The innovations are exported worldwide, too: half of Babylon’s users are in Rwanda, while almost a third of Ada’s are in India.

‘The big challenge,’ said Neil Mesher, UK and Ireland CEO at Philips, ‘is to go from discovery to scale.’ Building a partnership with the NHS is likely to take years. ‘You have to knock on every single door.’

That is not to say the NHS is always bad at adopting new technology. There are ‘pockets of excellence’ in innovation whereby partnering with industry the collective potential of data, technology and people has been used to improve productivity and organise care seamlessly, said Mesher. Sometimes new methods are adopted with speed. Just three years ago prescriptions were by pen and paper. The green forms could be lost, the handwriting misread. Now the number of electronic prescriptions has reached a billion.

Timmins, author of The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State, suggested that the NHS is always ‘about to go to hell in a handcart’ – but that ‘somehow it gets through’. Past progress offered hope. The first MRI machines cost millions and could ‘do almost nothing’ compared to today’s models. Now they are cheaper and used almost everywhere. ‘I’m an optimist,’ he said. ‘The answers will come.’

For more information, visit the Philips ‘Health Knows No Bounds’ site here.

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