Dr Anne Blackwood, CEO of Health Enterprise East looks at the technology set to revolutionise the NHS in the future. It feels like the healthcare industry is on the cusp of a technological revolution, with products and ideas that started out in completely different fields, such as gaming and financial services, beginning to find their way into the NHS. Some of the most exciting areas of tech with the greatest potential for application in the NHS are detailed below:
- Robotics: Robotic arms in surgery are already used by the NHS, but further refinements look set to make these even more precise. The potential benefits not only lie in more accurate procedures, but in the opportunity for less invasive surgery which should lead to shorter recovery times and improved patient outcomes. The question on everyone’s lips is how far robotics will evolve over the next 70 years: could robots, equipped with artificial intelligence, be used to care for the elderly at home, or could robots help diagnose patients by smartphone without them ever having to see a GP?
- Artificial intelligence: Trials are already underway in parts of the country exploring the use of smartphone apps to diagnose patients enabling faster treatment decisions. Initial findings suggest AI delivers high levels of accuracy and can empower patients to look after themselves better, although it is clear that there may be limitations to the technology. For instance, an app might struggle to gauge emotional distress and cannot replace the human touch so vital to personalised care of an individual. Nevertheless, it seems eminently feasible that wider AI adoption for processes easily automated could help free up time among the NHS’ hard-pressed workforce.
- 3D printing: New organs anyone? Although still some way off, it feels like only a matter of time before the successful transplantation of a 3D-printed organ becomes a reality. Liver tissue printing is already enjoying some successes, and could be used in trials of new medications, to avoid testing on live patients. The hope is that 3D printing could hold the key to solving the current organ donor shortage.
- Virtual reality: This gaming technology could greatly enhance the ability of medical teams to visualise surgical fields, so as to devise more effective surgical plans. It could also find widespread use in medical training programmes and may have applications in therapy such as speeding up recovery after traumatic brain injury
The immediate future
There are numerous potentially ground-breaking innovations under development within the NHS right now – it’s certainly not all science fiction. Many of these developments come with potentially huge life-changing and cost-saving impacts. Importantly, many are the inventions of NHS staff, who have used technology in an innovative way to address a specific need which they have identified.
A current example is the EarFold® implant invented by Norbert Kang, a consultant plastic surgeon from Hertfordshire. EarFold® is an alternative procedure to correct prominent ears, which is thought to affect 1-2% of the UK population. The procedure inserts a material under the skin of the ear. In time cartilage re-forms around the implant, and the ear bends permanently into its new shape. This rapid and effective process carries significant patient benefits, since the procedure is carried out under local anaesthetic, has fewer side effects than normal otoplasty surgery and is far less intrusive.
Another example of pioneering innovation is Ablatus Therapeutics, a novel tissue ablation technology to treat the most challenging, and often inoperable, solid cancer tumours. Tissue ablation is a surgical procedure used to destroy tissue, such as a tumour, in situ. With Ablatus Therapeutics, a needle-like probe is placed inside the tumour and radiofrequency waves are directed through the probe, increasing the temperature within the tissue and destroying the tumour. With support from HEE the company was spun-out of Norfolk & Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where the technology originated, and has received over £2m investment to date to develop the technology.
New ways of working
While the possibility of new products often steals the headlines, using technology to establish of new and innovative models of care could be equally, if not more, transformational.
Artificial intelligence, data analytics, social media and digital health platforms for instance, could help deliver more patient-centred, personalised healthcare, as well as help achieve better service integration.
By bringing together clinical insight from experienced NHS practitioners and the entrepreneurial technology from the UK’s thriving start-up community, there is scope to deliver greater rewards than innovating in isolation.
The NHS will benefit by having products that are ‘fit for purpose’ and affordable, patients will benefit by having access to new treatments and services that are more personalised and effective, and technology developers will save both time and cost during the product development phase.
Overcoming barriers to innovation
While existing government proposals, such as the Accelerated Access Review, the Accelerated Access Pathway and the Innovation and Technology Payment, are well-intentioned in their bid to hasten NHS tech adoption, several issues remain.
Of course, investment in needs-driven solutions and procurement levers are important factors, but these will yield few concrete benefits on their own. A more fundamental problem is that new devices, diagnostics and digital health platforms often require service redesign and retraining of staff before they can be implemented; yet the system has little or no slack to effect change management.
The challenge – indeed the necessity – is to provide the NHS with the time, skills and additional resource to redesign services and care pathways to accommodate new technology. Only then can a technology revolution be unleashed, with a wealth of innovative products that can truly benefit patients, clinicians and the public at large.