Technology on the frontline: can digital health save our NHS?
Most of us dearly love our frontline NHS. It’s there when we need it from cradle to grave. But it’s an NHS in trouble, under unprecedented pressure of resource versus demand. English hospital trusts ended 2016 with a deficit of £2.45bn. That’s a new record, almost three times more than the year before. To boot, this year we saw winter pressure challenges high on the political agenda, with our NHS being advertised at breaking point. Every year our emergency services are under significant strain. Where are things going ‘wrong’? How can we better support our frontline staff? These are points of significant political debate. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth Fund hailed the NHS as the best healthcare care system overall in 2013, compared to 10 other countries including Switzerland, Sweden and the US, scoring highest for ‘quality, access and efficiency’. So how can we best support the future delivery of frontline emergency care?
IT and digital health are often heralded as the panacea for problems, health-related or otherwise. There is an app for most things these days, and it is quite amazing what solutions can be accessed, even for free! We are at the beginning of a tidal wave of new technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, which are beginning their ‘transfusion of innovation’, from simulated training scenarios for surgeons to virtual reality apps to attract new blood donors. Computer processors keep getting quicker and more powerful, helping us to do more and more, often simultaneously. So are these digital initiatives helping our NHS? And how do we even measure ‘success’?
The problem is that some NHS IT initiatives have, let’s say, ‘not performed as well as they could have done’, and these negative experiences grab the headlines. Take, for example, the Guardian’s headline a few years back on the18th September 2013, ‘Abandoned NHS IT system has cost £10bn so far’. These headlines stick! There are many examples of similar, unwieldy IT projects running late and over-budget. However, it is largely unfair and imbalanced to judge NHS ‘IT performance’ solely upon these problems.
Our NHS is a complex one to navigate. That’s one conclusion we know for sure, but for every IT implementation disaster there are a plethora of initiatives successfully integrating and interfacing with our patients, seeking and succeeding in changing patients’ lives for the better. All with a common goal - maximising the value of our NHS.