By Dr Barney Gilbert and Dr Lydia Yarlott, co-founders of Forward Health discuss why digital apps can only take the NHS so far.
It’s great that we’re starting to see the NHS putting power in the hands of its patients. Healthcare is trending towards the individual taking control – we know more about ourselves than ever before. We monitor everything from our metabolic rate to our fertility cycles using cutting edge tech, and yet we can’t seem to get an appointment with our actual doctor anytime before Christmas. The NHS App, which is set to coordinate GP services, repeat prescriptions and 111 calls, is one small step for patient-kind, but represents a changing future. With a new health secretary in office, one who embraces the power of tech and the role it will play in the future of our health service, we can only expect this trend to accelerate. The smartphone generation expects access to their own health record and control over their healthcare at their fingertips, and so they should.
Given all that, it’s fair to say that digital solutions for the NHS have had a habit of being underwhelming. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, but it does mean that our health system now consists of an eccentric patchwork of software which collectively only partially fills the gap. This new piece of the technology puzzle has to be good news, but it’s essential that we start to consider the whole offering. Communication within the NHS is broken, and an app that helps patients can only be so useful when doctors and nurses still struggle to talk to one another. Modern healthcare is breathtakingly complex – an average hospital stay will require input from a few dozen clinicians, technicians, specialists and administrators. The majority of information exchanged is still passed through an ancient system, leading to huge inefficiencies, not to mention delays and errors in patient care. The new app is a patch, but whole tapestry is, frankly, a bit of a mess.
Of course, there’s no doubt that these days, technology is getting pretty exciting. We’re fully immersed in the era of machine learning, deep virtual reality, and bots that pass the Turing test for the first time, and in this environment, it is tempting to think that new and shiny solutions are the panacea to all the NHS’ IT pains. However, you can’t build a skyscraper on top of a sandcastle; new layers of communication software require strong digital foundations. These foundations are basic – connecting health and care workers as they wish to be connected (on their mobile phones), securely sharing information about the patients they look after. With this infrastructure we will see inefficiencies ironed out organically and a downstream effect on waiting times and availability of appointments.
Matt Hancock, coming as he does from a digital brief, understands the need to create a truly 21st century health service. His approach to this will hopefully create a culture of innovation that will see more and more new technologies be developed and adopted. The time for incremental, hesitant change has passed.
In summary, the NHS App has to be a good start, but the truth is that technology to help patients is only as good as the systems our doctors and nurses rely on. Efficient healthcare is internal as well as external, and if your hospital is still sending faxes and relying on pagers, as a patient you’re unlikely to get a twenty-first century experience. It will be interesting to see what the new guardian of the NHS’s take is on all this. We can only hope that the glossy app he’s now launching is more than just a smokescreen to distract from the really fundamental changes our health service needs to survive.