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Harnessing new tech: how the NHS can fully join the digital revolution

To fully benefit from healthcare innovation, the NHS needs to form close partnerships with private tech companies. But while progress is being made, and patients helped, much more can be done.

At a homeless support centre in Hastings, outreach workers are about to take part in a cutting-edge experiment using technology to improve the health of the town’s rough sleepers.

Each morning, outreach workers – doing their rounds visiting the homeless of Hastings – will check to see if the rough sleepers have any visible signs of illnesses, sores or injuries and photograph them on their smartphones.

They’ll head back to the support centre and show the images to a medical professional, who will advise whether these conditions need to be checked by a doctor. The outreach workers can then set up a remote video-conversation between the rough sleeper and a doctor via an app on the worker’s phone. 

The planned trial aims to improve medical access for the homeless, who are often reluctant to get treatment. The test is part of a growing trend towards delivering health services using consumer technology such as smartphones, tablets and wearable devices. A raft of new services such as Babylon Health and Push Doctor are offering medical consultations via smartphones and stand to revolutionise the way health services are delivered.

But health authorities lack the time and resources to devote to developing these low-cost care technologies. So it is vital that they forge partnerships with technology companies and third-party organisations to deliver technology-based innovations in care. 

Bea Karol Burks, design director at digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation, which is helping to develop the Hastings trial, says: “Private providers are at the leading edge of technology and they can invest in new ways of doing things in ways that the NHS can’t. They have got the money and the expertise, and there is loads of great technology out there that would be really beneficial to NHS patients.” 

So how can health services work effectively with digital businesses to improve care for patients? The NHS is working on this challenge through the NHS Innovation Test Beds programme. This consists of seven pilot schemes to bring together technology, such as wearables, apps, monitors and sensors, with the delivery of better patient care.

One trial led by health body Care City in Barking and Dagenham is creating partnerships between 11 technology providers and health and care organisations in north-east London. One of the schemes involves putting low-cost mobile electrocardiogram (ECG) scanners in pharmacies to test for stroke risk factors, improving screening rates at a fraction of the cost.

Care City chief executive, John Craig, says the scheme brings clinicians, health service leaders and patients together with tech innovators. “The challenge in adopting new technology comes in answering the many simple questions about where the technology is going to be used, who is going to use it and when. The Test Beds programme allows us to work hand in hand with industry to quickly answer those questions to the benefit of the public,” he says. 

So what should public sector health authorities and private tech businesses do to make sure the partnerships work? 

Emily Hough, director of strategy for NHS England, says the Test Bed programme was created to test out how care could be combined with digital technology to improve patient outcomes at the same or lower cost. Tech companies often struggle to work with such a massive organisation focused on patient outcomes and have limited understanding of health systems, she says. This means there may be insufficient evidence to back up innovations. 

Hough adds: “The Test Beds are gathering insights and evidence on whether their innovations have worked and why. By forming partnerships with industry, the NHS has given the opportunity to test digital solutions, with industry getting insights into what works in practice. From the beginning of the programme, we have had a view on spreading successful innovations, supporting the NHS and tech companies to understand the value they can offer each other and to deliver improved outcomes for patients and the public.” 

Meanwhile, Richard Lewis, healthcare partner at consultancy EY, says the NHS has been focused on evidence-based treatments for the past two decades, but new digital innovations often have little evidence to back up their effectiveness. Investments by tech companies will reap a return only when the benefits have been created and the health service has seen a cost saving from using its technology. “That commercial model is one that the NHS is particularly looking for,” he says. 

For technology to improve healthcare in the decades to come, partnerships between public health providers and private technology businesses will need to become ever more effective and seamless. The two sides will need to find ways of working together to deliver a new era of enhanced patient care at a lower cost.

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